I remember reaching a point of panic when I was nineteen or twenty years old, thinking I was almost to that place where life settled itself into a solid, unbreakable pattern and ceased to be exciting. Nothing more to learn, nothing more to strive after, no more deep thoughts to enter into and explore, just getting from one day to the next. Mediocrity was just around the corner.
Mediocrity: the curse of adulthood. Children see magic and excitement in all things. Teenagers look to the distant horizon of “the future” and dream big dreams. Even many college students pour themselves into the joy of learning and knowledge and believe in the greatness of ideas, the adventure of life and love. But adults wake up every morning, pour the coffee, and steel themselves to get through the day. The horizon is no longer distant, it’s just the next step, and they lose the vastness of it. I will be frank, as I am rarely frank: this is my greatest fear.
For most of my young adult life (using “young adult” in the loose sense of “since I was about fifteen”), I have struggled with this. I always put off the next big step as long as possible, because I think I ultimately see it as a loss: one more box checked off on the list of life ambitions, one less thing to look forward to. I remember being somewhat horrified (at the time I couldn’t explain why) when one of my dearest friends in college started a “countdown” to graduation at the beginning of our last semester. She put the number on her bedroom door, and every day I walked by and thought, not, “46 days to graduation” but “46 days closer to mediocrity.” I attend the weddings of friends and try not think, “They’re almost there.” I’m ashamed of myself for wanting to marry and settle down and raise a family because it seems like longing for the very constriction I dread.
As I get older and the patterns of my life ossify daily, I encounter that fear more and more often…a fear bordering on terror. I’m twenty-five now. But thirty is coming…and then forty…fifty…and so on, and surely–surely I will eventually hit that wall all adults seem to hit, and I’ll stop moving forward. I’ll settle into my awful suburban clapboard house, raise a family, keep pets, sign the kids up for swimming and dance and music lessons, maybe even join the local civic league and the parish choir just to keep things interesting, gradually put on weight, and try my best as the years progress not to notice that my soul has shriveled, that I never actually did anything.
I had a conversation with one of my aunts recently. She said, “Well, I’ve done everything that was on my list of things to do before I die. I have nothing more to live for. Ha. Ha.” My aunt isn’t fifty yet. Now she has had an exciting and eventful life: she’s lived abroad, learned a foreign language, worked a good job and climbed the ranks, raised a family…but to be not yet fifty and to say, “I’ve done it all”?
And I look around at the older adults I know and wonder, does anyone escape? Does it go without saying that we all reach a point at which we say, “Okay, this’ll do,” and sit down and settle in and wait? (For what? For the inevitable end, I suppose.) Or do the clapboard house, the swimming lessons, and the parish choir practices expand and fill all the space in you, the space that right now seems so vast and able to be filled with such … greatness?
I wrote a paper in my junior year of college on the virtue of magnanimity. “Great souledness” as my good professor loosely translated it. A “stretching forth of the mind to great things,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas. It surprised and relieved me to discover that this largeness of soul was not just pride…that the longing for great things (not in terms of wealth or power or fame, but that which is truly great) could–should–actually be a virtue. This virtue takes up all things and applies them to the purpose of greatness. That’s the secret of the Little Way of St. Therese, isn’t it? To take up the tiny, the seemingly insignificant, and apply it to that purpose. If one truly lives this virtue, one can never hit the dreaded wall, because the wall is nothing more than the repudiation of magnanimity. Magnanimity takes even the clapboard house, the swimming lessons, and the civic league and turns them outward and upward. One hits the wall when she inverts these things and makes them the destination.
I think ultimately this should be our perception regarding this single phase in our lives. We’ve been given this time to enter deeply in to the ultimate purpose of our lives—not falling in love with Mr. Wonderful, not having kids and raising a family, though these things are very, very good—but living with God. We can’t set that aside as a pleasant cliché, a good thing to remember on Sundays or in those rare bouts of sanctity, or something we’ll focus on “later, when it’s closer to the time.” There is only this moment standing between me and eternity. Do I really have my heart set on God as my ultimate goal, or am I placing intermediary wants up front and center and living for those instead?
If the ultimate end remains firmly locked in our minds as The Goal, then there’s no danger of falling into mediocrity. Mediocrity is the very antithesis of sanctity. So the answer is: be not afraid. Only fix your eyes on the horizon and keep walking forward.