That last semester I lived on coffee and ambition. My vocal coach wanted me to get ready for auditions for the Dallas Opera. Two of my humanities professors thought I should ditch music after graduating and go for a PhD in history or literature. I had so many options, and I had trouble choosing what I wanted to do next.
Our parish was doing the Alpha course (a kind of Christianity 101) that fall. My husband went to the meetings while I hung out at the university to practice or do research. One night though, I went with him, and during the discussion time the facilitator asked: Are we lukewarm Christians? Are we doing our best? Being our best?
"I think the worst thing we can be is mediocre." I said this with all the self-assurance of someone in her twenties.
A Scottish gentlemen in his fifties, who was sitting across the table from me, raised his eyebrows. "And just what do you mean by that?"
I stammered for an answer. Didn't he know? Hadn't he heard that truly successful people never settle for mediocrity? Surely he knew that Christians should strive for excellence? That Christians were meant to be great?
"Well, I think people need to think beyond just doing the daily things of life. Christians shouldn't settle for getting into the rut of life. We should be the best people we can be . . ."
"Ah . . ." He sat back with a twinkle in his eye, then twisted his mouth in thought. Shades of his former career as a physics professor at an English boarding school passed over his face. He was mulling over something, but decided to simply say, "Hmmm."
From the pitiful feeling in my stomach I knew what I had said wasn't right, but I didn't know why. My thoughts on mediocrity came from what was said on Christian radio, in Christian books and articles, and in sermons. With such an avalanche of media stating that good Christians were successful, what could be wrong with shunning mediocrity?
That conversation has stayed with me for seventeen years. It comes to mind from time to time, shaping my thoughts on faith and what it truly means to be successful.
About two months ago, our family heard a refugee from Iraq speak. What he most wistfully recalled of life in Iraq before ISIS was the mundane. He would grin with delight over memories of waking up to the sound of kids playing soccer in the street, chatting with neighbors, celebrating holy days at church . . . having a sense of community. Community is something that American churches try to bring about with programs, seminars, and retreats but, not too long ago, was a normal part of living in northern Iraq. He finds life in the United States to be isolating. He often must work weekends, so he misses Mass. He doesn't know his neighbors because he rarely sees them. Americans are too busy to talk, to care, and to merely relate. Americans don't have time for ordinary things in their pursuit of the glorious.
Hollywood likes to make films of people trapped by a rut or a tragedy, but then an event, a dawning, or some other catalyst brings about great change with fame and fortune. In Screenplay, Syd Field points out that only in the movies does the universe consistently reward people for enduring through a misfortune or for breaking out of their norm. In reality, people often go through hardship only to wind up in the typical rhythm of the mundane, again, which is not as satisfying as the Hollywood happy ending. We want the cancer patient to not only survive, but to win the lottery and travel the world. We want the hardworking and creative baker to not just recover from a setback, but to have a wildly successful bakery and a new beau, too! Would we like it if a movie ended with the cancer survivor feeling overwhelmed with medical bills and trying to cope with the pain of fair weather friends? Or what if the baker barely scraped by in the never-ending but typical cycle of ups and downs until she retires?
Let's face it. The mundane is not fun. It's easy to grasp the temptation of Adam Sandler's character in Click. Wouldn't life be better if we could all fast forward to just the exciting bits? And I say this knowing full well that dirty dishes mean that you ate, that needing to discipline kids means that your kids are healthy and normal, that sweeping the floor again and again means that you're blessed with a busy household. You can look on the bright side, but work is still work.
As the school year wraps up for us, I have been thinking about "loving what must be done," something that Christopher Perrin wrote about a few years ago. Because really the mundane is all about the stuff that must be done over and over, again and again. Along with "loving what must be done," "perseverance produces character" has also been rattling around in my mind. I think somehow persevering in love means seeing the ordinary as being vital, boring and sometimes difficult, but vital. Character comes from choosing to do the not-so-wonderful things because you choose to love, even when you don't feel loving, even when you don't get a Hollywood ending.
My kids get a bit tired of me talking about character as a reward, but I swear to them that if they learn this now, they'll appreciate it when they're over forty and paying bills. If they can learn the value in walking through the valleys, they'll appreciate all the exciting mountain tops more fully. If they can commit to being content, they'll avoid the long lasting damage of living beyond their means and the perils of seeking one thrill after another. If they take the time to build relationships, they will find the joy of community. If they can love what must be done and be meek enough to see the beauty of the mundane, they will find true success. If they choose to love, even in the mediocre, they will win.