On Meaning and Mediocrity

The other night, my husband and my son had a debate about living a life of mediocrity.

I can’t tell you exactly how the topic came up; one moment he was telling us about a philosophical discussion his history class had on blissful ignorance versus torturous truth, and the next they were disagreeing over the human condition. My son, with all the confidence and wisdom that comes with his 15 years on Earth, asserted that most people are born, live and die without ever doing anything extraordinary. He claimed, “Think about it. What does pretty much everyone do, for most of their lives? Wake up, eat, go to work or school, come home, eat, go to sleep, get up and do it all over again. For an entire lifetime. Maybe 3 or 4 percent of the population breaks the mold, but human beings, in general, just survive.”

He won’t study Thoreau until next year, but I’m pretty sure he would have pulled out the old “Most men live lives of quiet desperation” if it was part of his lexicon.

My husband, bless his heart, earnestly and intelligently debated with him. He talked about routine not equaling robotism, about virtue, how living a life of selflessness and altruism is meaningful, no matter how mechanical the day to day hamster wheel. He couched it in compliments, noting how my son is incredibly honest and moral (he is), how that was gleaned from his mother’s example (you can see why I married him), how raising a future generation to be good is anything but mediocre.

To my son’s credit, he was too smart to argue with the apple-tree example, but remained unconvinced on the merits of “boring” virtuosity.

I remained silent throughout most of this conversation, bemused, observing my man and manchild go around and around, neither successfully convincing the other.

How appropriate that on the heels of that conversation, today’s chapel homily, given by our school’s headmaster, centered on a meaningful life. To my delight, he incorporated one of my all-time favorite texts, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaningand the 3 tenets of logotherapy. He only briefly touched on the philosophy, preferring to spend most of his time talking about a member of our school’s community who embodies the philosophy, but his point was clear: a meaningful life, a deeply satisfying and worthwhile life, does not come from accolades or accomplishments, rather daily devotion to a virtuous attitude.

My son usually zones out during chapel, but I hope he was listening.

Some day, when he is older and wiser, I hope that my son will change his mind on that great existential debate. I like to believe, perhaps naively or foolishly,  that he will some day judge my choices, as all children do their parents, and ultimately deem them important in their authenticity, in their earnestness.

More importantly, I hope that he finds meaning in his choices, that he sees beauty in the little acts of virtue, even if they aren’t exciting or glamorous or noteworthy.


3 responses to “On Meaning and Mediocrity

  1. It’s heartening to think that perhaps the young ones still see the possibility of accomplishing great things, even if the reality turns out to be less celebrated than they currently envision (especially on those days when you find out there are multiple missing math assignments…). And it’s hard to explain that those great achievements rarely just pop into existence. Could it be that the daily routine of a virtuous life serves as the foundation for the extraordinary?

  2. It’s great that your son is having these profound discussions. So much better to talk about these things than wondering what the latest celebrity is wearing. When I was a teenager, I thought the exact same way. Life was very black and white. As I grew older, I started to appreciate the subtle nuances in life.

    He’ll definitely learn to find meaning in his choices. The fact that he’s already thinking about it means that he’s on that path.

  3. I’m crazy about your writing. It’s crisp and interesting. One comment about your son’s and husband’s Ecclesiastes debate: It has been my experience that a person’s greatness is not truly appreciated until that person is gone. Private journals read for the first time. Discovering the very personal nature of someone else’s day to day struggles. The awesomeness of just being consistent. It’s wisdom that comes with struggle and with age. Your son is off to a good start. At least he’s thinking for himself and has good role models.

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