The Rapture of Mediocrity

Facebook keeps giving me advice on how to upgrade myself. It seems that every time I check my feed there is more of me to improve.

‘Six Mindfulness Apps You Need Right Now’, ‘Three Money Hacks That Will Change Your Life’, ‘How to Say No to Your Kids and Still Make Them Feel Awesome’. The campaign for existential perfection just goes on and on. Lists of superfoods assault me while organisational tips confound me. Articles that blather on about the importance of gratitude (or optimism, or whatever) fill me with despair.

Nothing seems to be off-limits for the gurus of self-improvement, those people whose well-meaning advice has permeated every nook and cranny of modern life. From food, to exercise, to parenting, to interior decorating, to decluttering, to having sex, it seems that mediocrity is no longer acceptable. The fat, the frumpy and the insecure…we are all of us, every one of us, on the way out.

In our place shall rise a generation of healthy, happy, confident people. People whose children both grow and eat kale. People whose tiny homes sit perched on the hillsides of conifer forests. Special people. Superior people. People who are living their Best Lives. And who knows? With the advances we have seen in genetic engineering, it might even be possible to enhance such people even further. They could be given bat-like hearing, for example, or the ability to play the piano with their toes.

And for the rest of us? What about the bump-along-the-bottom, one-day-at-a-time crew? Let’s just say that for the plodders — those destined to dwell in mediocrity — the outlook isn’t quite so bright.

Don’t get me wrong; I would love to be a breathtakingly beautiful, Nordic type with a successful Silicon Valley start-up or two under my belt. But a childhood spent in the crucible of anxiety and despair leaves its mark, it seems — and I come from the kind of family where mental illness, substance abuse and just good old-fashioned pessimism were grist for the mill. If childhood forms the foundation of adult life, then mine established the kind of existential baseline that negated any possibility of real human excellence.

There was nothing truly terrible about my family. Nothing horrifically violent or fascinatingly criminal about our shortcomings. We didn’t cook meth. We didn’t rob banks. We didn’t strangle women in parking lots, or participate in drive-by shootings.

It might have been better had it been so — had we been some sort of mafia family instead of such an intensely suburban one. At least then one might have had the material for a lucrative tell-all autobiography, the basis for some kind of dramatic spiritual conversion. But it wasn’t like that and, in fact, I suspect that it was the banal and profoundly mundane nature of our failings that really doomed us.

Perhaps it was our gift for holding onto slights and resentments, or our mild paranoia. Perhaps it was the way in which we elevated hypochondria to the greatest of human virtues.

In my family, brushes with the medical profession were always discussed at great length and we even developed a kind of verbal shorthand; a series of abbreviations that we would use to describe our various ailments and their treatments. An operation was an ‘op’, a caesarian was a‘caesar’ and our cornucopia of medications quickly became our ‘meds’.

In my family, a hospital admittance marked the beginning of a family reunion. A ceasefire would be called. Disputes and grievances would be set aside so that the patient could take centre stage and regale us with every unsavoury detail of their gallstones operation. Thanks to the wildly dramatic narrative styles we favoured, the audience would almost always be left with the impressionthat the individual had almost died on the table.

When we weren’t bogged down with illness and hospital stays, we inevitably indulged in the creation and maintenance of in-house micro-dramas. Perhaps someone had recently used the last of the milk, or still felt a deep bitterness over a pair of shoes that had been permanently borrowed in 1979. Maybe someone hadn’t visited Aunt Betty as often as they should have while she was in hospital having her ‘op’, or their current hairstyle was unflattering.

Grievances, disputes and gossip can bind people together, it seems, just as effectively as love can. A person with a grudge is a person who is putting the other at the centre of their life. They are maintaining the connection; they are holding on and refusing to let go. And in this sense, grudges are a form of love. Inverted love, perhaps, but love all the same.

If this seems mildly crazy to you, then let me assure you, it often felt rather crazy to me. And for years, I fought the crazy. I resented the pessimistic and mildly deranged framework that I been raised in. I wished that I had been born elsewhere, that I had been brought up by nice, easygoing, emotionally stable people. And perhaps most importantly, I rejected the parts of myself that reminded me of them. They didn’t seem normal, and I so desperately wanted to be normal. I felt that normal was out there somewhere, and if I looked hard enough, I would find it.

I wasn’t ready to embrace the basically incoherent nature of human existence. I couldn’t really comprehend a world where a person could be simultaneously fucked up and fine, crazy and sane, capable and incompetent, loving and bitter.

It seems that adversity can create a kind of slingshot effect; that it can fling you into your true destiny more effectively than a whole series of happy childhood summers. As Frank McCourt once put it….’the happy childhood is hardly worth your while’.

Whether I knew it or not, my desire to to create weird and wonderful things in the world had — somehow — been baked in by my exposure to pain and suffering. My spirit had been scrambled by life, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Dealing with the craziness had demanded creativity of me, as well as determination and drive. As Nikola Tesla once put it: ‘our virtues and our failings are inseparable, like force and matter. When they separate, man is no more.’

Slowly and carefully, I began to embrace the profound generational wisdom that had kept my family safe, secure and heavily medicated for decades. I started to see that — somehow — family is both the poison and the cure.

Within our families, we experience our most foundational life experiences; we learn our most basic human skill set. And the fact is: the people that taught you to Trust No One are often the very same people who taught you to knit. And cook. And garden. And sing. And do all manner of life-affirming things in the face of difficulties, as a kind of dance within the storm, a sung response to your own experience of instability.

So what if Facebook tells me that negative, guilty, anxious, pessimistic people are more likely to have cardiac arrests than their well-adjusted peers? I have made my peace with this; I have even upgraded my medical insurance so that when I have my heart attack, it happens in a hospital with nice views and much, much better food.

So what if I am a stressed, scattered kind of parent? If I am, psychologically speaking, only half there most of the time? If I am not all that present to my children? In comparison to Josef Fritzl (the Austrian man who kept his daughter locked in a dungeon for twenty-four years, sexually abusing her and fathering all seven of her children) I am an amazing parent.

My kids have access to the open air. They have the opportunity to tell me they hate me, steal change from my wallet so that they can buy junk food, or loudly declare that they are going to run away. They can whine for hours if they want to, confident in the knowledge that I won’t hit them. And I do love them, in my own guilt-ridden and mildly manic way. I try to show them that I love them by forcing them to do things that they don’t want to do — like learn to read. I make them get dressed in the morning — I harangue and threaten them until it finally happens. I take them to music classes and guilt-trip them into practicing. A well-raised child is one that can afford their own psychiatrist — and thanks to my excellent parenting efforts, they are well on the way to having a skill set that will give them access to paid employment one day.

That’s me. That’s who I am. And with that, let us skip to the present.

Right now I am in my kitchen.

I’m looking after my daughter.

I am doing the haus frau thing; trying to get the house neat and tidy while I care for my youngest child, my three year old daughter.

There are dirty plates all over the kitchen and piles of washing that need folding. My mind is everywhere and nowhere. I am distracted, scattered, all over the shop. I know that I need to clean, but what I really want to do is go on Facebook. I want to see whether the last few photos I posted of my tiny and beautiful little girl have triggered any likes or comments. I also want to get onto Wikipedia and see what liver flukes look like, because I heard someone talking about them on the train, and now there is a gap in my knowledge that requires filling. The dog is turning in manic circles; he hasn’t had a walk in days. And my three year old daughter is begging me to play with her.

There is nothing I love more than my child, and nothing I hate more than playing with her.

Kids are the pointy end of ambivalence.

When I talk to my beautiful daughter I am somehow both utterly entranced and bored senseless at the same time.

My daughter is stunning to look at. I can gaze into those eyes for hours. Her turn of a phrase is delightful; she calls toes ‘foot fingers’ and uses the word ‘fazz-tastic’ to describe anything that she likes. Her childish babble is utterly charming — or would be if her claims on my attention weren’t constantly derailing any chance that I have of doing something productive.

Also, any conversation that both lasts longer than thirty minutes and really only deals with the topic of unicorns seems to inevitably test my patience. She is, in equal parts, both the most utterly magical — and the most frustrating — companion imaginable.

’The Aldi game’ she says.

Of course.

The Aldi game.

Right now, her favourite activity is a ‘game’ she calls ‘going to Aldi’.

We pretend to go shopping together.

That’s it — that’s the whole game.

There is no more.

I pause.

My daughter senses my reluctance and drops to the floor, wrapping her whole body around my left leg. I can’t even walk now, because there is sixteen kilograms of child wrapped around one of my ankles. I call this move the hand brake because that’s how effectively it immobilises me. It’s her way of making me submit to her will, of forcing my hand.

I look down at her doll-like face, she is all big eyes and curls. Her sheer bloody-mindedness both impresses me and annoys me; she will not take ’no’ for an answer this time. She is telling me that I must play with her, or I will never walk again. She will not be fobbed off with Peppa Pig, or a snack, or even the new packet of stickers that I bought for situations like this one. And the worst bit is, she is absolutely right.

One day she will be a teenager, snarling for money and telling me to mind my own business when I ask even the most innocuous of questions. Right now, however, all she wants is for me to play with her. She is desperate to hang out with me, to spend quality time with Mummy.

It’s kind of flattering — in a time consuming sort of way.

I look around me; it seems she has made preparations. There are boxes of cereal and baked bean cans all over the living room floor. She has even gotten into the fridge and hauled out some of the perishables; right now the dog is having a go at the packet of ham that he has dragged into a corner. Bottles of shampoo and body wash have been carefully arranged along the bench top along with a hairbrush, a toothbrush and some dental floss.

My tiny daughter has done her best to recreate the aisles of a discount supermarket.

It’s pathetic, really. I mean….this is her idea of a good time?

I pause.

‘Where is that two dollar coin that I need for a trolley?’ I ask her.

She goes crazy with delight because this means that I am buying into her pantomime. She runs off to fetch me an imaginary coin. When she gives it to me, I use it to unhitch an imaginary trolley, then examine my imaginary shopping list. I really camp it up, umming and ahhhing over whether we should buy four litres of milk or six. I tell her that I need some sugar, and ask her to go get it for me. She nearly trips in her eagerness to bring me the imaginary sugar (along with several actual cans of baked beans from the floor).

I put them into an imaginary bag and tell her that we need peanut butter.

Whatever I do, it’s doubtful that I will become the kind of unfailingly cheerful, optimistic, loving mother that the University of Social Media demands I become.

But it seems she loves me anyway. Because I am her mother. Because she is my daughter.

There is a rapture between us; banal and domestic yet intense and vivid. Family, it seems, is both the poison and the cure. I can’t help this. I didn’t invent it. It is just the way things are.

And because it is the way things are, perhaps one day she will sit in her own therapists office, getting worked up over each and every one of my failures as a mother.

But for now she thinks I’m perfect, walking by her side, shopping for imaginary dog food and and exclaiming over the price of toilet paper.

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This one is for Mum

**Certain key phrases came from Dad (Noel Hillis) — kids are the pointy end of ambivalence & entranced and bored senseless at the same time.

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