The Work of Being Ordinary

Rousseau refers to amour–propre (self-love) as a “universal desire for…preferment and a frenzy to achieve distinction.” -Fred Neuhouser

Isn’t it now high time to accept being ordinary?  It would be nice if one trip to the mountains could make the difference to get me finally to a place of peace.

It’s been with me most of my life, the fantasy of being a VIP. It has to do with my adoption; it has everything to do with my adoption. And when I started writing at 15, I assumed that I’d eventually surpass the greatest greats. A larger-than-life figure whom fans would be amazed and astonished to see entering a room. In having these fantasies I wasn’t that unusual. Many adolescents go through such a phase.

Once, a long time ago, I upset a prickly lady with the comment that “Only celebrities matter.” The word “celebrity” now means, for me, people notable and recognized in their field, say, those who have a Wikipedia article written about them. People who have a following and a reputation. People, in other words, who are in some sense popular. And speaking of Wikipedia, any article on any town bigger than a hundred persons will likely have a section called Notable People. When there is an airline crash, there is always mention in the press of Notable People on board.

If I think about fame as popularity writ large, then I should be able to understand why it was going to be hard for me: I’ve never been particularly popular. In my thinking, lack of popularity writ large is actually an essential ingredient of ordinariness. Last year I produced two of my own plays; the hardest part of the experience was getting people to care, getting people off their couches and away from Netflix. This year, no theatrical productions at all, but instead: five weeks in the mountains! Which is better?

But this idea of Promoting myself: Not only is it boring; I didn’t realize until a few years ago that there was any need to do it. But I always loved the process of creation more than the final product. I used to care about being published, but now, when a journal which has my work in it arrives in the mail or appears online, I’m pleased for a moment and then forget about it. It’s the act of writing, the joy of putting together a poem or essay or story that fulfills me—or it should, until I hear a comment such as “I like Alex; he’s my favorite unknown.”


Ordinary: not a public figure of any kind, not visible on social media, without a following, without extraordinary talent or abilities or intelligence and without a huge drive to promote oneself. In other words, the challenge is to be an extra in a movie, and not one of the stars. Just being an extra. A face in the crowd who appears in the movie for a moment and never again. But, in advanced societies, and especially in the U.S.A., most of us are not content to be just extras.

How does one (how do I) come to terms with being ordinary/average and get to a place of living without pretensions, living with a notion that I am not better than others. I do wish there were one simple answer, to be explained in a single paragraph, but it’s a lifetime’s work, like being in AA. Here’s the beginning of a beginning of some answers:

In another blog post I wrote about Rousseau and my old (estranged) friend, Fred Neuhouser, an expert on Rousseau. The biggest takeaway from Neuhouser’s writing on Rousseau is this (and I realize it’s a simplification): There is a kind of self-love peculiar to humankind, even primitive humankind, that drives us to want to be better than our peers. Even in a non-inflamed, non-neurotic stage, we have a natural desire to want status. It’s almost as natural as the sex drive and the urge for survival.

So much for the natural man, the villagers competing to do the best dance in front of their huts. Then millennia passed and Christianity came along, and through the long period of the “Age of Faith” most of the populace, at least in Europe, lived simply with their simple faith that stressed the Afterlife, the real world beyond the present world, and annihilated all sense of vanity and status. My favorite image is that of artisans at work on a cathedral, gifted but humble souls who don’t even sign their names; so pious and modest are they that worldly renown is foreign and incomprehensible them. (There is, it seems to me, something profoundly Eastern about the way the West was at one time.) That all changed with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. As faith declined, worldly love of status rose. Often I think about what used to be called the Dark Ages (the men of the Enlightenment came up with that term!). To be a peasant in Europe in 1100 was to live a hard life but a life with faith. The book from roughly 1300 called The Imitation of Christ could be a handbook on how to live for all people, for all time.

Books like Status Anxiety and The Frenzy of Renown make, in different ways, the point about medieval man versus people now. As the Middle Ages gave way to the modern era, in which anyone could rise to become a Benjamin Franklin or an Abe Lincoln and we progressed to meritocracy, our religion came to be money, status, success, renown, the buzz generated by other (lesser) people talking and thinking about and emulating a Star. Being extraordinary. Since God “was dead,” the only answer was inventing a way of life that worshipped Madonna and Justin Bieber which included dreaming of someday being Madonna and Justin Bieber.

It’s not an accident that I mentioned AA . Ultimately an AA-type of approach to status anxiety is one of the only answers I can think of. AA stresses spirituality (as opposed to religion). The other answer is outright religion.

Spirituality? Religion? But that’s hard for someone like me who has no real background in a spiritual life. I recently read Thomas Paine; even though he lived over 200 years ago, his analysis of the Bible’s flaws and inconsistencies is devastating. Rousseau didn’t go quite so far: in his Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar he writes about the Bible’s problems but still values it as a book that could not have been written merely by a human hand. And Tolstoy’s desperate crisis, I believe, was healed by the sound of a simple peasant in the field saying “God is great.”

Maybe it takes having a kind of spiritual awakening to shake off fame lust and fully embrace the supremacy of the ordinary. Maybe it takes surviving a plane crash or finding oneself caught up in the midst of riots and revolution to finally shed illusions of grandeur and just simply live.

I laugh at people who care about driving fancy cars and wearing fancy clothes and living in fancy homes. I hope (dare I say “pray”?) for the day to come when I can laugh at people desperate for status, prizes, followers, a book deal, Facebook “likes,” YouTube views, praise from the New York Times, and a place in people’s hearts a hundred years from now. May the awakening come soon—an awakening, to be sure, that includes the wisdom to realize that status lust will always be there to some extent (as someone in AA will introduce himself as an “alcoholic” even after decades of being sober).

But may that lust shrink; may I find a way to minimize it on my “inside screen” to a more manageable size than it is today.

“No man is much regarded by the rest of the world. He that considers how little he dwells upon the condition of others, will learn how little the attention of others is attracted to himself.” –Samuel Johnson

“Know you that the love of yourself is more hurtful to you than anything else in the world.” –Thomas a Kempis

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7 thoughts on “The Work of Being Ordinary

  1. He deplored so much in poetry.
    The oceans of muck — worse than dreadful,
    ordinary — one must swim through
    to find the cool blue water
    as almost gone as air.
    But when you’re there,
    being that transparency,
    suspended in float, almost no body,
    natural citizen of wonder —
    there’s nowhere else you want to be.

  2. Dearest Cousin,
    Your thoughts are shared by many I believe- and in knowing that I hope you feel back from me a hug- a simple lack of loneliness-I feel most attention seeking is just a small cry for love- sone louder than others.

    In my old age I remember the joy and warm feeling of knowing you’re here on the planet and somehow just being with you a few times gives me comfort- still- explain that:) !

    Thanks for your beautiful fluid writing that is always a read I can’t stop until I finish the piece.


  3. Thank you for writing this. I’m wondering if it is actually status we crave. Maybe it is simply the need to be seen, recognized, appreciated. Somewhere along the line it changed into status, probably because status can be monetized. I too went through stages with my writing. What a thrill to have something published at first. What a thrill to have a chapbook at first. Then that faded and it became more important for me to find a community of writers. Having a group to share with, to struggle with, became very important. This was totally different than the original loner idea. It seems to me that art allows us to evolve, leads us to constant evaluation and revaluation of our lives and our goals.

  4. “I’m nobody,” I say, which is not so different from your “being ordinary.”

    As a reader of poetry — and I read poetry almost every day — I like my poetry. I would it to be seeable, readable, available, like the poetry of so many others.

    I read some of your poems on your “poems” page. They are good poems! Like so many others. And now this nobody has seen them.

  5. A sobering journey of illumination?

    A stroll upon the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

    The vast majority of names?

    You will not know them.

    Take care, good sir.


  6. Again your road to self-understanding is an example for me. At the same time the way you express yourself in that search is admirable. The pursuit of meaning in life is a long process for most of us. There are so many options to choose from that it becomes a confusing one. We do depend on each other because we are social animals but at the same time we are individuals that have to make some sense of life. Maybe being a writer means the pursuit gets mixed up with the greater acceptance of the our work rather than opportunity to share significantly with those around us.

    I like Thomas Merton’s quote: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time” in No Man Is an Island. I think in that process is when we begin to connect with others. But what do I know? Anyway, I enjoyed exploring the thoughts, struggle and progress that you have gone through.

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