Yesterday. ‘Be more, Do more’. The tag-line for a personal training company written on the back of a van in front of me on the drive into town. The narrative theme of our times, the poetry of our shared culture, as revealed by the advertising and marketing that surrounds us.
When we live in the narrative of ‘more’, every action, every conversation, every relationship becomes dedicated to an unending project for which we feel continuously responsible. More money, more stuff, more experiences, more trips, more friends, more relationships – yes. But also more capable, more powerful, more self-determining, more authentic, more persuasive, more reasonable, more peaceful, more compassionate, more successful, more loved, more happy, more fulfilled. When we orient towards ourselves this way we become the project, the objects of an unending self-improvement effort that requires our constant vigilance.
And anything can be appropriated in service of the project of self-improvement. Excellence, which once meant living a life as an expression of virtue, comes to mean standing out from the mass. Learning – a means of getting the best test results. Art – a way to look (and think of ourselves as) cultured. Meditation and other spiritual practice – a way to have an untroubled life of peace and tranquility. Exercise – a way to get a body that others will be attracted to. Our own development – a way to gain unlimited power to do what we want, when we want it, and to have others support us and love us for it.
When we live in this way, convinced that we’re always due an upgrade, there is nowhere to rest. But, more importantly, we distort ourselves with a gross misunderstanding of what it is to be human, a misunderstanding in which we secretly imagine that it’s possible to be a god. After all, who else but the mythical gods stand out, in all circumstances, from others? Who else has endless power, beauty, fulfilment? The capacity to summon abundance and tranquility upon a command, the ability to avoid suffering, accident and happenstance? Who but the gods have an existence in which there is no death, loss, disappointment, or illness? And who but the gods get just what they want, when they want it?
When we live as if we’re supposed to be gods, or entitled to be gods, we shouldn’t be surprised at the harshness of our disappointment and self-criticism, our endless comparison with the lives of others, and the way we’re hurled from grandiosity (I’ve made it, the all-powerful me) to deflation (I’m so small, and the world is so big, and there’s no hope) and back again. And we shouldn’t be surprised at what a fight we get into with our lives – lives that often surprise us, let us down, show us how little we know, throw us about, all without much regard for whether we’re getting what we want.
When we stop trying to improve ourselves (and often the people around us) all the time, we can start to appreciate in a new way the very natural and quite beautiful capacity of human beings to develop; to unfold like the buds of a rose. And we come to see, I am coming to think, that the path of our development is not trying to be gods, but finding out that we are ordinary.
To be ordinary is to discover that we share the same heritage and future as all human beings, and all living things – a heritage and future that we cannot escape. To know ourselves as ordinary is to find out that we have bottomless capacity for compassion, kindness, wisdom, beauty and contribution as well as for selfishness, cruelty, denial and stupidity. To know ourselves as ordinary is to understand that we’ll die, that there are consequences to our actions, that the earth’s resources are limited, that we can’t just have what we want because we say so. And to know ourselves as ordinary is to see that the vast world was here long before us and will be here long after us, and to find out that our contribution – if we’re willing to make it – ripples out through the other ordinary lives that our life touches, both those who are around us now and those who are to come.
To know ourselves as ordinary is to discover humility, finding out that we’re not bigger than life but neither are we smaller than it; to take up our place in the weave of living things in which we find ourselves.
When we know ourselves as ordinary we discover that we’re all in this together and, because of this, we have some justification for hope: the understanding that our skills, capacities and deepest commitments can be an immense source of help even when we cannot control the outcome. We have a reason to love and care for others who are as messy, conflicted, confused and life-filled as ourselves. And we find ourselves able to step in on behalf of life, rather than lose ourselves in fairy stories of optimism (it will magically all get better whether or not I take part) or pessimism (in which we’re all lost, whatever we do).