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 the screen of my consciousness to a more manageable size than it is today.