Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Age of the Average

The other day I watched a video, or part of it anyway, about a young couple who cycled about 4500 miles from one end of the country to the other. It got me to thinking.

Riding a bike across Oregon would be an enormous feat. Across the country? Huge. With your wife? Move over, Captain Peary. This is a big deal to me. But to our contemporary society, it’s nothing more than a footnote on the local news wires, if that. The video had about 120 views on You Tube. I wondered why.

Is it that we can no longer do great things as a society, as a civilization? Have we run out of Pearys to discover the North Pole? Magellans and Vespuccis and Armstrongs and Yeagers and Wrights? Admittedly, from a certain perspective it sure seems like we’ve mostly accomplished what God told Noah: fill the earth and subdue it, teem on it. But if we’ve run out of spectacular things to do, does it follow logically that real wholesome spectacle itself is dead too?

If greatness has indeed died, for what then shall we live? All of us aspire for some kind of notoriety, at least I think so, on some level, because part of human nature includes that “hey, look at me” gene. And while riding with no hands for mom is great when you’re seven or eight, it’s not very satisfying for grown men and women. So…there’s nothing great left for these generations to do…and therefore we shall sink into ignominy and become average…right?

No, I don’t think that’s quite true. I think we have become benumbed to greatness. We’re so paradoxically isolated in our urbane anonymity, faces glued to our electronica, that we wouldn’t know a great man if he walked up and slapped us in the face. The paradox extends, too, to the increasingly violent and extreme turn current events have taken since I was a kid. We didn’t have news stories about cannibalism in the streets, terrorist threats in skyscrapers, unexplainably out of control natural phenomena, and so on. That mild heart attack you should feel when you see crazy headlines begins to fade the more you read them. And that means it takes more sensationalism for you to sit up and notice extraordinary things.

I’m not saying we should dumb down what defines greatness. Quite the contrary. I’m saying we’re chasing the wrong kinds of things, and it’s slowly killing us from the inside. We’re deadened. I think it’s mostly because we connote our vicarious experiences with reality: we watch an HD documentary on the Amazon rain forest and we then assume we’ve basically been there. But such an outlook is patently untrue.

The main problem is that we so seldom rub elbows in the flesh with true honor, courage, daring—real greatness—that we’ve lost the intensity of what that word means. We have very little appreciation for feats of daring because we so rarely have to dare to do anything anymore. Now, just cooking dinner for the family is awe-inspiring. And then we sit down in front of the flat screen and become blobified, dissolving into subhumanity. Average. Dead and boring. And dead bored. I only mention it because I have struggled with it.

But not so much anymore. Nope. I decided to wake up and engage a little while back. I’ve turned a corner in my life, and I know it. I’m waking up a little more each day. I’m in the ring again, contending. I hope to see you there too, in fact.

Don’t listen to what the dirty great river of pop culture tells you about greatness—it’s not to be found on Jersey Shore, or whatever that horrid TV show is. We can stop incentivizing blobified humdrum sameness by taking hold of real values in our own lives first. The individual, the hero, is just waiting for you to let him out of the cage. There are things to fight for, there are still feats of greatness waiting to be done. There is still an unknown to fear. It might be harder to find, sure—but scarcity drives up value. I’m more and more out there, where the heroes are—where honor, courage, and commitment still mean something.