O stunning and such spacious sky,
For tawny flows of grain,
For plummish moutains’ dignity
Atop our fruity plain.
U.S. of A., U.S. of A., God favor you a lot
And crown thy good
From this coast on to that!
Mary had a tiny lamb,
Its fur the color snow,
And all locations Mary found,
That lamb would also go.
It took M’s trail to school that day,
Which did disrupt a law.
School kids all did laugh and say:
A lamb in school? A flaw!
What would we have without the letter E? We’d have gobbledygook like my rewritten verses, lipograms free of Es, stuck in a much less pleasant language. Realistically, trying to avoid that which is most common becomes extremely difficult. Imagine cooking without salt. It can be done if it must. Consider building without bricks or nails or boards. Again, difficult, but possible. Setting aside what is most common may engender creativity or build ingenuity, but at what cost? It might be desirable some of the time, especially when we try to invent or discover new ways to think or new approaches to problems, but forswearing the common all of the time seems foolish.
It can even be arrogant. I knew people who referred to everyone of whom they disapproved as common, said with scorn. “Her writing is common.” “His clothing looked so common.” “Listen to him talk. He is really common.” This sneering usage is something like the change from the original archaic sense of vulgar which did not initially mean substandard but ordinary or standard. Those self-styled patrician folk who dismissed others as common, they were not nobility but ordinary folk themselves, who fancied themselves—well—fancy, bordering, it might seem, upon worthy of worship.
However, most folk are common, at least most of the time, and that is not a bad thing, just a reality. I recall from my late teens an alarmist newspaper headline over a worried and overwrought story. “Half of city students read below average.” I wondered if anyone had considered that that is precisely what average means, that if every youngster in the world improved reading ability markedly, half would still read below average, and half above. Most people are average, and there are times and ways that being average can be fun. Most students deserve the grade of C, but current academic culture makes that a reality tough to enforce.
Not everyone can be excellent, and very precious few can be excellent at a lot. No one is excellent at everything, not even the geniuses of the Renaissance who had much less to learn than there is to know and master nowadays. Leonardo today might feel trapped in a dead end job designing motors for new varieties of helicopters and lament feeling devoid of time to become excellent at everything. He would likely design brilliant helicopters, and he might even find the time to paint some nice tableaux, but he could be stumped by Sudoku or altogether unable to understand his daughter’s iPad, and maybe he would get lost without GPS trying to make his way to Schenectady.
Without that which is most common, we are lost. There would be no customers for shoemakers, no patients for psychiatrists, no passengers for airlines, no voters for the politicians, no politicians for the Wall Street gang to manipulate (oops—a different day’s blog), no smiling faces for photographers, no readers for writers, for all of us would be good at everything and never would we need anyone else. Lincoln might have said, “Common looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them.” I recast that: God must have loved the ordinary and the average. She made almost all of us that way.
I don’t mean to extol mediocrity. Anyone who has a special talent is wise to nurture it. Even if one only suspects a talent, it seems reasonable to work on it. I try always to improve my photography, for example. Yet it is sensible also to accept ordinariness when it is appropriate. When asked if I would care to play tennis or racket ball with someone, I usually would answer yes, and when asked my skill level I would reply cheerfully, “I am striving to achieve mediocrity.” People thought I was kidding until we played.
It’s okay to be the letter E. What would we do without it? Now and then, it is good to be a Q or a J or an X or a Z. They improve the world and spice up Scrabble or my favorite word game, the truly excellent Jotto. But no one is a J or a Z all of the time and probably never in every way. We seem wise to accept ourselves as we are. Spare me, now, thoughts about Alphas and Betas and Epsilon minuses, and Brave New World. Write me off, if you will, as common, but I believe that no one has to be good at everything because no one can, and expecting it, even striving for it, is just plain irrational. It is silly, maybe even dangerous. I’ll explore another day the dangers of always expecting excellence.
America, America, God shed some grace on thee. And crown thy okay with whatever happens to be nearby or handy at the moment. It’s reasonable most of the time to be good enough.