The Relief of Being Ordinary

Standing Out in a Crowd, But Remarkably Average.

Sam Bush / 2.22.22

In my college town, a local radio station’s motto is “Different is Good.” The implied message is that if you want something fresh and unique, turn your dial to them, otherwise, enjoy the tired, overplayed songs of the other stations. It’s a catchy phrase in an age where everything has started to look the same. From cookie-cutter houses to puffy jackets, conformity seems inescapable. Despite our collective tendency to follow the beaten path, we also strive to set ourselves apart from others. We often identify ourselves as distinguished alternatives — either “not like other girls” or “not your average Joe” — in the hopes of being seen as anything but ordinary.

In his recent Atlantic article, Joe Pinsker explains the rapid rise of one-of-a-kind baby names. If you’re a parent of young children, you’ve probably noticed there aren’t any Tom, Dick or Harrys on the playground. Whereas sixty years ago, parents would intentionally choose popular baby names so that their kids would fit in, today’s parents are naming their children so that they’ll stand out. “American naming is now in a phase where distinctiveness is a virtue, which is a departure from the mid-century model of success,” writes Pinsker. By contrast, the postwar era’s definition of success was more communal than today’s individualized culture. Conformity was something seen as honorable in that it pointed to the greater good. Now, parents feel the need to separate their kids from the pack. Like a catchy brand name, your success depends on your distinctiveness.

The need to be extraordinary extends to every realm of life. Take fashion, for example. It is often seen as an embarrassment when two people are wearing the same thing. What was intended to be a person’s “statement piece” becomes a cliche when someone has already made the exact same statement. Years ago, in a crowded bar, I noticed another guy wearing the same shirt I had on and instantly became flustered. I went from being a unique contributor to society to being part of the crowd. It took me three months to build up the courage to wear that shirt in public after that, lest I ran into my evil twin again.

Few people articulate the desire to be extraordinary as well as Arthur Brooks. He frequently writes on how people willingly sacrifice their own well-being in order to have a distinguished career. He once admitted he would prefer to be special than happy. Anyone can attain happiness, after all. Just take a walk outside, go on vacation, or simply stop working so hard. While these things may improve your life, they will fail to get you into any history book or hall of fame. Anything less is deemed a failure these days. It’s as if we believe that extraordinary people are the exception to the rule of life. If the lives of ordinary people end at the grave, extraordinary people somehow live forever.

The desire to be considered unique or special can reflect a subtle superiority complex. We’ve seen other people and, frankly, we’re unimpressed. As Pinsker said himself, to be extraordinary is to be virtuous. The word “holy” literally means to be set apart. To secure our place in the world, we have always rejected the idea of reducing humankind down to one common denominator. The Greeks would talk about themselves in contrast to the barbarians. The Romans would talk of “the Romans and the rest.” In recent years, our collective identities have become so particular that each individual is its own subset to society. “Us versus them” has turned into “me versus everyone else.”

There’s one catch to this furious attempt to be unique: trying not to be like everyone else has paradoxically become the definition of conformity. We may each be individual snowflakes, but, once we start to accumulate, we begin to look the same.

If you want to be a true nonconformist, wear white sneakers, be a project manager, and name your kid John. As Chesterton once said, “All men are ordinary men; the extraordinary … are those who know it.” In that sense, to be truly exceptional, you must have the humility to realize that you are just like everyone else. If you ever find yourself able to swallow that pill, it might go down easier than you thought.

Accepting your ordinariness might not condemn you after all, but set you free. Or, in the words of Agnes Callard, “It is a relief to discover the option of being no one in particular.” Amid the never-ending demand that we be unique in order to be enough, our lives regularly point in the opposite direction. Though we might try to cultivate a few relatively distinctive attributes, we possess the same limitations, failures, and flaws as everyone else. Circumstances may change, but the struggle is universal. We aim for the exceptional, but always seem to find ourselves in the bookstore’s self help section.

Perhaps this is why Christianity talks so much about sin. Not because it is intent on making people feel dour, but because a low anthropology matches our everyday experience. We all want to be a cut above the rest, but we are all on the same level — uniquely average sinners in need of help.

Jesus seemed entirely uninterested in our efforts to distinguish ourselves from others. He usually taught to the crowds; his miracles given to anyone who asked. Jesus showed mercy to the unrighteous, namely everyone. To him, our identities aren’t tied to our unique hobbies, niche sports or sense of style. We are all wearing the same boring shirt, failing in all the same predictably unremarkable way. As for our one-of-a-kind names, he gives us new ones at the drop of a hat. “Did you say your name was Simon?” he asks a certain stranger. “Well, you look more like a Peter to me,” never bothering to ask permission. He graciously refuses to let us craft our own identities. He sees right through our attempts to distinguish ourselves from one another. And yet, he also sees each of us as special. Every sheep may look like every other sheep that has come before it, but he keeps careful tabs on each one. He doesn’t love us because we’re special, after all. It’s the other way around.

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One response to “The Relief of Being Ordinary”

  1. […] Bush has some good ideas in this article: “There’s one catch to this furious attempt to be unique: trying not to be like everyone […]

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