On Being Mediocre


I always loved the scene at the end of the film “Amadeus” where F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri calls himself the “Patron Saint of Mediocrities” and goes through the insane asylum absolving the inmates. I related very much to his character – jealous of genius and talent, abusing his position to take revenge, not on Mozart, but on God, who he feels betrayed by because he cannot write music as beautiful as Mozart’s. I loved the look on the face of the priest at the end of the film – utterly drained, horrified by Salieri’s confession.

It’s always been pretty clear to me that if you’re a genius, you’re out changing the world, and when you’re done, someone will come along and make an award winning film about it so we little people can enjoy the story. If you have the inborn ability to work hard and focus, you can do all kinds of neat stuff. I was not born with any special abilities, and so my life is actually pretty average. I am not especially talented nor hardworking. I brag about my piddling accomplishments on Facebook, in a braying, pathetic way that I can only imagine sounds like nails on chalkboard to most people.

And I often find myself in this conundrum: being average, I look around and see that most other people are also average. Some of them seem aware, others not. Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition writes “There is no lasting happiness outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration, and whatever throws this cycle out of balance- poverty and misery where exhaustion is followed by wretchedness instead of regeneration, or great riches and an entirely effortless life where boredom takes the place of exhaustion and where the mills of necessity, of consumption and digestion, grind an impotent human body mercilessly and barrenly to death- ruins the elemental happiness that comes from being alive.” We despise poverty and aspire to wealth – and the in-between state of simple happiness seems always under threat by one or the other.

It is a terrible time to be a mediocrity. Unable to lose oneself in mindless labor, equally unable to achieve excellence so that one might become become part of a community of peers. When I was in high school, I had a theater teacher – a man who commanded enormous respect in the school, having built up an acclaimed theater program more or less on his own, over the course of 25 years – who told me once “You’re not that good.” I have carried those words with me ever since. I cannot bring myself to apply to big, serious universities, because I already know that I’m just not that good. Respect is not something I will ever deserve. And that would be fine – an entire generation of Americans got along fine being average – but now of course, only the exceptional are able to escape the terrifying grind of capitalism. We are tossing out of democracy because it cannot sustain our exceptional existence. American workers did ridiculously well in the mid-twentieth century, and threw it away on mere consumption. We tried to build up an illusion that we weren’t really average, when we were all along.

Keeping this blog up is very challenging. I have to keep writing, but a lot of the time its just garbage, like today. And I don’t have time to go back and write something better. I have other stuff to do. Books to read, dinner to cook, and so on. I’m just an average guy. I’m not that good. But I have to keep trying.


Published by samuelbarbour

Besides writing a blog, I also teach, farm, cook, and play music. I live in the Illinois River Valley with my partner, Molly Breslin, who sometimes posts stuff at breslinfarms.com

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