In Defense of Mediocrity
It is not in the strength of the horse that he delights, nor is it in the speed of the runner that he takes pleasure. The good pleasure of the Lord is those who fear him, those who wait for his steadfast mercy.
Dear People of God,
We sure love a good Zero-to-Hero story.
Surely you’re familiar with the type. At the beginning of the story, our protagonist languishes in obscurity. Maybe they are working at a dead-end job, maybe they are unsuccessful in school, or maybe they are the underperformer of their family. Whatever the details, they are living a decidedly uninspired life. They are, in the grand scheme of things, a zero.
Of course, this all changes once the story gets going. Something unexpected comes their way, a tragedy or a chance to make it big, and in facing this challenge they discover something that makes them truly exceptional. By the end of the story, they have gained recognition from those around them and confidence in who they are. They have become, in one way or another, a hero.
It's not hard to see why these sorts of stories are popular in a society that is as celebrity-obsessed and achievement-focused as ours, especially since the vast majority of people will never be widely recognized as celebrities or heroes. Despite the wild optimism of graduation speeches and the American Dream, it’s hard to shake the sneaking suspicion that our lives are simply unremarkable. Even the things that might set us apart in our local community—a capable intellect, an impressive talent, a unique hobby—are quickly cut down to size in our globally connected age. After all, it takes only a quick Google search to find hundreds of people who are more intelligent, skilled, or successful than we could ever hope to be.
That’s where our stories come in. Because we live in a society that venerates the exceptional, Zero-to-Hero stories become a source of hope. We may feel ordinary and unremarkable now, but that just means we haven’t yet found our opportunity. Someday, something will surely come our way and we will be able to prove to the world (and to our inner critic) that we are truly extraordinary! Or so we tell ourselves. And in the meantime, we use these stories to prop up the hope that we will one day be more than mediocre.
This hope, however, is a false hope. It is false not because no one is exceptional (some certainly are) but because it will never deliver the happiness it promises. In a world of more than 8 billion people, it is nearly impossible to be the best at anything, and even if we reached it, that achievement would not redeem our inadequacies. Try as we might, we cannot escape our mediocrity.
But what’s so bad about mediocrity?
Most people, most of the time, live in the neighborhood of mediocrity. Mediocrity is the stuff of our daily lives: drinking our morning coffee, wishing our families a good day as they head out the door, attending to our daily work, eating leftovers from the night before. Despite all our obsession over the extreme and exceptional, mediocrity is where we spend the bulk of our time.
It should come as no surprise, then, that our Creator is deeply concerned with the mediocre moments of our daily lives. Indeed, scripture focuses much more on the daily lives of ordinary people than it does on the extraordinary moments of heroes. Despite our tendency to interpret the stories of scripture as putting forward heroic examples of faith for us to follow, the true hero of scripture is always God. The above-quoted psalm is a good example. God’s delight is not in the extraordinary talents of the warrior, but rather in the reverent hope of the one in need of God’s mercy. Or, as Jesus puts it in Matthew 9:13 “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
For another example, look no further than the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5. Here at the heart of what God expects from Israel, we find no acts of heroism or exceptional living, but rather commands which pertain to the daily lives of God’s people. God’s people are commanded to 1) Trust in God alone, 2) Pray to God in time of need, 3) Set aside a day for rest and hearing God’s word, 4) Honor their parents, 5) Guard the lives of their neighbors, 6) Be faithful to their spouses, 7) Look out for their neighbor’s property, 8) Protect their neighbor’s reputation, and 9 & 10) Curb the jealous desires of their hearts. While I can imagine times in which obeying these commandments might result in heroic acts, those are the exception. These commandments are concerned primarily with the ordinary daily and weekly rhythms of life. As Moses says later: “This commandment which I command you today is not too unusual for you, nor is it far off.” “The word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11, 14)
As Christians, we have received God’s undeserved favor in the form of God’s promises given through Jesus Christ. The most important of these promises is the one given in baptism, where we receive adoption as children of God’s mercy and are given our deepest identity: “My child, my chosen beloved, in whom I delight.” No achievement or success on our part could ever compare with this gift of God, nor could any failure on our part cancel it out. Having been claimed as God’s own, we are free to simply be. Freed from the exceptional demands of our culture, we trust in God’s promise, wait on God’s mercy, and joyfully go about our work, in holy mediocrity.
Your brother in Christ,