Monday, December 17, 2007

The Courage of the Ordinary

A few years ago, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences published a report on grade inflation in American Universities. One of the startling examples from that report: 80% of all Harvard students graduate with honors; nor was Harvard alone in grade inflation. When this is the case, “with honors” becomes meaningless. (Princeton has instituted policies to reverse the trend – and I commend them for their courage in their stand).

Beyond the college silliness...a real feeling of entitlement. Some lay the blame at helicopter parenting (hovering over and intervening way too much in children's lives -- see this story on the mom who called her daughter's boss). Some commentators believe the whole generation born after 1980 is one that is self-absorbed and lazy. These critiques are over the top and unfair, but they do reflect a truth (for it does take a lot of truth to keep error afloat) that building self-esteem has been a running theme through the lives of these children, and many times that self-esteem came at the cost of recognizing true excellence.

Conservative pundits decry these trends with such frequency that it has become cliche (read the comments that follow upon this news story on Millenials). However, a semi-libertarian hearkening back to some imagined social darwinism isn't exactly an attractive alternative. If a deflation of excellence to trivia has lead us to a decadent arrogance, then a tough nosed determination to value nothing but excellence will lead us to a dystopian nightmare in which the clever, the strong, and the ruthless would have their way with us lesser mortals. Honoring excellence without honoring human dignity leads to tyranny; honoring human dignity without honoring excellence leads to decadence. Somehow, we need both.

For this reason, I believe in celebrating the courage of the ordinary. The courage of the ordinary is what George Bailey exhibits in It's a Wonderful Life - he passed up many opportunities for adventure and greatness because he was committed the people in his life. He lived what on the surface appeared to be a quite ordinary life ... he courageously stayed committed to family, friends, and his small place in the world. And then, in the moment of crisis, he was blessed to see what a great impact he indeed had. The film Peter Pan makes much the same point. As the children are talking with their mother about their father's outburst of temper, Mrs. Darling tries to explain their father's courage of the ordinary:

Mrs. Darling: There are many different kinds of bravery. There's the bravery of thinking of others before one's self. Now, your father has never brandished a sword nor... nor fired a pistol, thank heavens. But he has made many sacrifices for his family, and put away many dreams.

Michael: Where did he put them?

Mrs. Darling: He put them in a drawer. And sometimes, late at night, we take them out and admire them. But it gets harder and harder to close the drawer... and he does. And that is why he is brave.

The courage lies in sacrificing the luxury of charting our own course so that we might take care of others. This is different from a mindless conformity; the courage lies in the choice. The courage lies in being faced with the dizzying opportunity to run away with the circus, to abandon committments, to chuck it all and follow the Grateful Dead, to run off in search of ourselves ... whatever the siren call to extraordinary life might be...and voluntarily and willfully declining.

Those who have chosen adventure and those who have chosen the ordinary usually have a mutual disdain for each other. Emblematic of this disdain might be the turf wars between coyboys and farmers in the mythic old west. The third Pirates of the Caribbean carried something of this theme as well - the freewheeling and self defining pirates against the ordered and boring merchant class. I suggest that such mutual antipathy is unhelpful. We have a need both for adventurers and for the ordinary. For the adventurers open up new realms of human possibility - they test the limits of human capacity - whether physical or intellectual. But the ordinary provide the stability and the groundedness that make the adventurers' exploits possible. Astronauts don't blast off into space without a lot of ordinary workers who manufacture rockes. Pirates and exporers don't sail the seas without a lot of ordinary workers who build ships, twine rope, forge steel, and create nautical instruments.

I believe that God created each human life as having value. That does not mean that the value is expressed in the same way. Part of the glory that God has placed upon mankind lies in the very expanse of capacities that are given us. The way to honor the varying expressions of God's glory in mankind is not through a one-size-fits-all policy where all children get A's. It is not through diminishing the accomplishments of the great so that the rest of us don't feel bad. The right way is through honoring glory each in it's kind. The glory of Olympic athletes is different from that of Little League - the former we expect astounding feats of physical prowess and we glory in the exceptional feats on the field. In the latter, we expect lessons about teamwork, fair play, hard work, good sportsmanship and respectful competition - and we glory as the children learn these lessons. Therein is the difference in the courage of the Extraordinary versus the courage of the ordinary.

What think you? Is there something to this, or are they but windy words from a decidedly too ordinary commentator?

Soli Deo Gloria