Mere Mediocrity

By Nathan Carr

Tim Wu, a Columbia professor who has written an editorial or two for The New York Times, is concerned that America is losing her hobbies—more alarming, leisure altogether.  To blame:

“We’re afraid of being bad at them….if you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon.  If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following.  When your identity is linked to your hobby—you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber—you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?  Lost here is the gentle pursuit of modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it….the pursuit of excellence has infiltrated and corrupted our hobbies….in a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom.  For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment.”[1]

Add to this pressure the pathological character of human beings toward excess.  Sam Anderson, author of best-selling Boom Town, the fantastical saga of Oklahoma City, wrote the following in The New York Times Magazine:

“Sometimes things get out of hand. In the N.B.A.’s slam-dunk contest one year, a contestant dunked over a mystery object draped in black that he revealed, afterward, to be a painting of himself dunking over a painting of himself dunking. Nero, infamous emperor of Rome, built a rotating dining room in which guests could eat peacock while flower petals fluttered down from special panels in the ivory ceiling. The writer Tao Lin once read a poem in which he repeated the line ‘The next night we ate whale’ for nearly three minutes. This is one of humanity’s most charming and maddening traits: our invincible instinct for excess. We can’t just enjoy a nicely proportioned home with snazzy decorations — we have to produce Versailles. We can’t just appreciate a lovely morning bird — we have to describe it (as Gerard Manley Hopkins did) as a ‘dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon.’ We can’t enjoy the Snake River Canyon without some daredevil eventually dressing in an American flag costume and trying to fly over it on a hybrid rocket-cycle.”[2]

Parenting is exhausting.  And each of these NYT opinion pieces, though not written for parents, are analogous to our vocation and calling as parents and co-educators of our children.  Parenting, like our hobbies, is now pressured by excellence (thank you Tim Wu).  And parenting, informed as much as anything else by our pathologies, has now been hijacked by material and scheduling excess (thank you Sam Anderson).  For those who feel that their own version of parenting looks more like Downhill Skiing (surely this is the most dangerous Olympic sport!), rather than Ski Ballet (remember ski ballet??  What ever happened to ski ballet???)—grace is available to you.

In the end, we must be patient with people.  With your babies.  With yourself and the expectations of any given day.  Grace-filled, snotty-nosed, snack-forgetting, milk-mustached mediocrity is about all that my wife and I are able to swing with our six kiddos, which means that we get a daily reminder of this:  that our identity was never bound up with the relative success of our children anyway.   If you never post the beach photos on Instagram; if you never fit into the Lululemon size of your wildest fantasies; if your life is the opposite of curated; if you still secretly feed your children things filled with gluten and chemicals from the drive-thru windows of America; or if you’re the kind that judges others for feeding their children Dunkin’ instead of Superfood shots; rest assured:  your identity was never bound up in any of that anyway (or the self-judgment that stands guard around it).  It is bound up with the grace of God.

Classical and Christian schools should be places of grace for the moms of this world.  We, as teachers and administrators, should absolutely call their children to behold, cherish, write about, and contend for the unchanging beauty of the Good who is God Almighty (and we should then make them translate this Encomium from English to Latin).  But then throw a party.  Throw a party when a frazzled mom, a tired dad, and a shrugging ninth-grader walk out the other side with “modest competence,” a profound sense of your love and support as a school, an indifference to worldly pressure as the enemy of godly leisure, and a gaze toward grace that leaves self-judgment behind.

 

[1]Tim Wu, “In Praise of Mediocrity,” The New York Times, September 29, 2018, accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/29/opinion/sunday/in-praise-of-mediocrity.html.

[2]Sam Anderson, “New Sentences: From ‘The New Rules of Coffee’,” The New York Times Magazine, September 27, 2018, accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/27/magazine/new-sentences-from-the-new-rules-of-coffee.html?rref=collection%2Fbyline%2Fsam-anderson&action=click&contentCollection=undefined&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=6&pgtype=collection.

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