15 August 2008

Excellence in Mediocrity

Mediocrity is generally a pejorative term. I've sometimes attempted to use the word in a more neutral and objective sense, describing that which is simply average rather than superlative. But it's difficult to own this description gracefully; at least it is for me.

I've always had a competitive spirit; some would say contentious, and that's probably been true more often than I'd like to admit. I've always been driven by a pursuit of excellence, in a way that has frequently been labeled (not always kindly) as perfectionism. I do take pride in a job well done, but the truth is that I have also been prideful in competition with others. I've measured my own success or failure in comparison with the accomplishments of my neighbor. I've tended to approach life as though it were a contest, as though life itself depended on being the best and winning. I suppose that sort of drive can be helpful in achieving worthwhile results, which may also benefit other people in the process. But in my heart and in my head I know it stems from an idolatry of self.

Perhaps it is because of the Olympics, which began this past week, or maybe something else has brought it to the forefront of my mind these days, but I've recently become more aware of just how competitive my approach to everything has been. I'm not one of those people who thinks that competition is inherently bad; nevertheless, I'm not thrilled with the competitiveness that I've recognized in myself, in my attitude and actions. Frankly, I've become increasingly weary of contesting all the time. Maybe it sometimes helps me to do a good job, okay, but it also causes me frustration and disappointment, jealousy and resentment, anger and bitterness. It's a sinful temptation to measure my worth by my own works, and to do so at the expense of my neighbor; which is to sin against both faith and love. Not only that, but, as in the case of every sin, it is a fruitless undertaking. It doesn't bring life, but death. It's a game that can't be won.

I'm certainly not the best at everything. I guess I figured that out a long time ago. So, instead, I've sought to be the best at certain things, as many as possible, and to carve out my niche that way. But I'm not really the best at anything, and I'm never going to be. It's a pointless pursuit. It's like the disciples arguing over which of them is the greatest, when they haven't yet begun to understand what real greatness is. By the standards of the world, there's always going to be someone better at this, that or the other thing; if not for the moment, then sooner or later. Even Michael Phelps, who is evidently the best swimmer in the world right now, and perhaps the greatest Olympian ever, is not going to hold onto that status for long. His records may or may not stand for many years, but he's going to get older and slower, while young bucks are passing him left and right. But I have no such greatness in me to begin with. I'm basically an average guy. I'm better at some things than I am at others; and I'm better than others at some things, but I have more weaknesses than strengths, and even my strengths are relatively mediocre.

It occurred to me this evening, as we were celebrating the Feast of St. Mary, the Mother of God, that greatness is found not in what we achieve, but in what we receive; not in our own merits, but in the mercies of God; not in superlative successes, but in the weakness and humility of repentant faith. Actually, I've known all of those things for a long time, and I've preached them on a regular basis. So, why is it so hard for me to embrace this sort of excellence in mediocrity? Why do I approach life and proceed with my pursuits as though anything less than "winning" were ultimately failure? Why do I think and act as though my place and my purpose were dependent on being "the best" at whatever? Is it really only a gold medal (or any medal) that makes the race worth running, the swim worth swimming, or the life worth living?

Mediocrity borne of laziness or carelessness would hardly be appropriate. For that matter, the point is not to suggest that any kind of "mediocrity" is inherently commendable; that would only turn the problem inside-out. The point is, rather, a different sort of measure altogether. Real excellence is found in Christ, by His grace, through faith in His Word. The joy and satisfaction of a job well done are found, not in besting the competition, but in doing faithfully what I have been given to do. Still, no matter how superlative, mediocre or pathetic my performance may be, I am at best an unworthy servant who lives alone by divine goodness and mercy.

Of course, the good example of such excellence that we find in St. Mary's humble faith, points us to the Cross of her Son, to the humility and sacrificial service of the Crucified Lord Jesus Christ. It is in His Cross that all of my prideful competitiveness and all of my achievements, be they real or imagined, and all of my worldly successes and failures are put to death, so that I may receive the surpassing greatness of the gift of God. It is not my own name in lights, in record books or in journals, but His Name given to me in Holy Baptism, which gives me life and salvation, value and worth, peace that passes all human understanding, and rest from all my labors. Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief. Let it be to me according to Your Word.

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