How do I accept being average?
The most daunting part of moving to a new city is making friends so, to meet people in Montpellier, my boyfriend Andy and I used Facebook to find events and groups we could join.
Being vegan, while less than ideal in France, provided a useful ‘in’ with the ‘Montpellier Véganes’ group. The very first weekend we arrived, we took our courage, and a big pot of lentil curry, in both hands and went to a vegan potluck dinner advertised on the group’s FB wall.
Our choice of lentils was accidental but, as it turned out, appropriate, as 90% of the other dishes featured lentils (the other 10% was baguette). All of the cooked dishes included brown rice. If you are looking to try ‘70s Counterculture Commune Cuisine’ take a trip to a regional French vegan’s house. They were undeniably an odd bunch but they welcomed us into their meal and for that we were grateful. Since then, every day, I see posts on my Facebook feed of vegan meals cooked by the ardent members. One in particular stands out- let’s call him Jacques- and every single night he takes a photo of his dinner and posts it in the group. Along with the photo, he gives a detailed ingredients list and full cooking instructions.
Besides the discipline required, what is remarkable about these images is that they are awful. Blurry and over saturated, the photos capture food that spans the range of beige to brown and looks distressingly overcooked (Is Jacques worried about germs? Is he watching TV whilst cooking and forgetting about the food?). What’s more, the quantities are huge and practically overflow the white plate; although there is mention of herbs and spices, the rainbow of brown makes everything look bland. This is slightly askew French peasant food. The ‘meat’ and two veg of a ravenous, busy 18th century farm worker… with a fondness for goji berries and lots of sausages.
The first time I saw one of Jacques’ photos I stared, amazed. I clicked onto to his personal profile and scrolled through all of his photos- they were all the same. I called Andy over to show him; I saved several of the most unexciting to my desktop. As a collection, the photos were even more remarkable- I could not remember the last time I’d seen someone share something so average with such enthusiasm. They were unstyled and unpretty, making even Martin Parr’s photos look elegant, but they were shared with real pride and no evidence of shame. Their lack of intentionality made all the other images I encounter on a daily basis look incredibly constructed and impossibly attractive.
That evening, I took a photo of our dinner and compared it to Jacques’ and found that they weren’t really very different (see hot dogs below!). Jacques’ food choices are a little bit mad but I had judged him unfairly, his photos and meals are not that different from mine when I leave them unedited. Your own mid-week dinners are probably similar- quickly thrown together, tasty but not constructed or photogenic. Just normal, ordinary, average.
Is this what our lives look like when no one is watching? In your media diet, how often do you see something you would call ‘average’? What does average even mean to you? Would you say it means the median, the middle, the typical? Or do you think of average as mediocre, unexceptional, uninspired? I would say that most of us think of average as primarily a derogatory term. We don’t mind being average when it comes to blood pressure or number of fingers but we do mind being thought of as average when it comes to our looks, our wisdom, our children, our potential. Anything that helps us to avoid vulnerability, we want to conform but anything that helps us to gain power we want to stand out and be extraordinary.
The fascinating thing about Jacques’ photos is not just that they are aesthetically dull but that, when viewed as a series, they don’t change. The photos, the food- they are unremarkable and they don’t progress. It is a narrative of the average that simply repeats, which is not a narrative that we encounter very often. Walter Benjamin and Andy Warhol might argue that this is an example of the ‘Age of Reproduction’.
Although it may not look like it, maybe Jacques is reproducing and repeating what he sees around him, what he likes and wants, what he thinks others like and want. Ironically, in chasing the ‘aura’ of Instagram he has created his own genuine ‘aura’, his own style. And he does keep getting encouraging ‘likes’ on Facebook. While the issue of imitation is interesting, I don’t think that’s the whole picture. Nothing about his photos suggests styling or awareness, they feel authentic, which is a more and more nebulous term. I think that here it means he has followed his personal desires and then shared them without a larger agenda and without shame.
Authenticity is an endearing quality, and it’s probably partly why I clicked through to look at more of his photos. On the other hand, the lack of change, of progress either forwards or backwards, up or down, is disconcerting. This is where the images point to a rare narrative of the ordinary that has very few parallels in culture- there is no elevator pitch for ‘nothing changes’. We want moderation in everything, except our stories. Kurt Vonnegut famously outlined eight main storylines that form the basis of most of what we read, watch and listen to- Man in Hole, Boy Meets Girl, From Bad to Worse, Which Way Is Up?, Creation Story, Old Testament, New Testament, Cinderella.
To test out Vonnegut’s theory, let’s take 2017’s top three grossing movies in the US:
- Beauty and the Beast = Boy Meets Girl
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi = New Testament
- Wonder Woman = Man in a Hole
As you can see from the diagrams, five of Vonnegut’s narrative arcs end in a ‘rise’ of circumstances and two end in a ‘fall’ of circumstances. Only one, ‘Which Way is Up?’, is ambiguous. If you watch a clip from Vonnegut’s lecture explaining these ‘shapes of stories’ he starts by placing the axis in the middle, which immediately precludes any of the stories following that middle line. You might begin with the ‘average’ middle but you wouldn’t end there.
We are not meant to go in a straight line Vonnegut suggests, and certainly our cultural stories support that idea. We make our lives into the same types of stories but with ourselves as heroes. I’m sure you’ve thought this before, we make our everyday experiences- exams, job interviews, dates, weddings, births, deaths- into plot twists. Everything that happens to us becomes another step in our Cinderella story, and then, to avoid the truth of our deaths, we tie our story into that of our families and our wider history, eternally passing on the happy ending baton.
Certain soap operas like the British Coronation Street or the Australian Neighbours appear to represent the average, some TV programmes like the 80’s classics Family Ties, Roseanne, or more recently Modern Family and This is Us look like they narrate the ordinary, except that when you ignore the ‘normal’ jobs, the ‘typical homes’, and pretend that these actors represent ‘middle ground’ attractiveness, the people in these stories still have the same narrative arcs as heroes. Their lives are headed towards something, there are obstacles and then triumphs. The line of their narrative shoots forwards, an arrow of progress. Rarely, if ever, are they left in a hole or in rags. In fact, this seems to be especially true of characters who are supposed to represent the Everyman. Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman would be a notable exception were it not for how intricately he interweaves his reality with his own mythology.
The ‘shapes of stories’ make for a fun after-dinner game- name a TV series or film or book and decide which narrative arc fits. The best selling memoir When Breath Becomes Air is Old Testament, Dan Brown’s newest novel Origin is Man in a Hole, Jesmyn Ward’s award winning Sing, Unburied Sing is From Bad to Worse. You can play the same game with TV, with music, with real life. The Atlantic featured an article in 2016 about a group of researchers from the University of Vermont and University of Adelaide who used Vonnegut’s storylines to analyse 2000 digitised novels and a computer. They found that no matter how complicated the plot lines, the overall story arcs fit with Vonnegut’s theory.
There is a lot of evidence that we’ve been telling stories about our lives since the beginning of time. Culture reflects and translates our stories and real experiences and turns them into meaningful journeys. These storylines that we fit our lives into are important, they save us from meaninglessness and helps us to see our bad decisions and traumas as lessons on the way up. Except… what if we’re not headed up? What if we’re headed towards more of the same, the ‘nothing changes’ storyline? How do we tell ourselves that story? Vonnegut’s ‘Which Way is Up?’ storyline is the rarest and comes closest to what I’m describing, its title says it all, but it’s still more glamorous than the reality.
I don’t want us to give up on stories, they serve a magical essential function, but I do think that we need to consider some new stories.
Jacques’ photos made me realise how rare and difficult it is to tell the story of ordinariness and therefore how hard it is to use this type of story as a model for our lives. Yet the majority of us are living average ‘nothing changes’ lives. For all that we resist and suffer through change, we hate the absence of change just as much. We look for patterns, for repetition and any useful data that we can use to create narratives of change. We can see this in GIFs and Instagram stories- each viewing of the same video is a new attempt to learn something new, or feel something different. The data may be the same but our intention and experience is not because of the stories we tell about it.
The difficulty with the ‘average’ story is that it breaks the reflective process that culture enacts. Culture can’t easily reflect a story where nothing much happens, and as a result we don’t have many guides to how to live these lives. It’s an invisible vicious cycle.
So maybe our lives are not stories. Our lives are messy. Our lives are one hot mess of nonsense. Whereas, in all of our cultural products, the messiness is tidied into episodes. In books, films, articles, even blogs, each random, confusing or dull event is turned into a narrative arc and we long for that. Worse, we think that’s how our lives are supposed to feel and look. We berate ourselves for not living perfect narrative arcs but maybe the shape of stories is the wrong shape to apply to our lives. We are so aware of the huge changes in our society but we haven’t addressed the shape of our stories- maybe we need new shapes instead of cramming all of our data into the ones we have adhered to for so long?
If we move off the middle line at all, if will be only minimally. If you consider the middle class (an almost impossible to define term, I realise) as the ‘average’, then 50% of Americans and Brits fall into the middle class bracket, less than in the 70s but still half the population. Amongst this middle group, some will see great rises (Jeff Bezos) and some great falls (Roger Ailes). Some, like Paul Kalanithi, may see both almost simultaneously. But most will probably end somewhere near where they began. I am one of them.
This fact may just fine for a lot of people, and I wish it were for me, but actually I feel tremendous hollow-hearted grief about this idea. I feel huge paralysing sadness because I think that I have wasted my potential, I have failed to do what I am capable of doing. I have not been strong enough to overcome my self-absorption, my insecurities, my fear. And I am incredibly lucky and incredibly privileged, I have many examples of people who look like me in popular culture. What does this absence of the ‘everyday’ in representation feel like for minority groups who know that they are part of the typical yet, in popular culture, they are close to invisible.
The majority of men have not yet acquired the maturity to be independent, to be rational, to be objective. They need myths and idols to endure the fact that man is all by himself, that there is no authority which gives meaning to life except man himself.
So how do I deal with this idea? I have spent most of my thirty six years telling myself a different story, one where I become somebody one day and achieve something and that would take me out of the ordinary. Perhaps I’m alone in my arrogance here but I really thought that I would be special, or at least…not average. How you imagine your extraordinariness is probably different from how I imagine mine (I over-eagerly envision bestselling books, a house on a beach, a million stamps in my passport) but that doesn’t change the fact that both of us imagined our way out of averageness, when the reality is likely to be very different. And what’s wrong with averageness anyway??
Given that, like most middle class people in their thirties now, I earn less than my parents did at my age, it is more likely that I will die slightly lower in the middle class than where I started out. As Aimee Mann sings in 31 Today, ‘I thought my life would be different somehow, I thought my life would be better by now, but it’s not and I don’t know where to turn.’ I feel sick at the idea that I won’t get my Cinderella ending but should I face the possibility anyway, should I face it now? How do I erase my expectations and what do I replace them with? Now that I’ve thought about the foolishness and hubris of my storytelling, I’m not sure how to continue with meaning. Now that I’m aware of all of this, what shape can I give to my life, what narrative arc can I create to make my life meaningful?
Are there any answers in culture? Can I find any help there? Maybe I’m placing too much responsibility on culture, on art, to guide me? Erich Fromm in Escape from Freedom says, ‘The majority of men have not yet acquired the maturity to be independent, to be rational, to be objective. They need myths and idols to endure the fact that man is all by himself, that there is no authority which gives meaning to life except man himself.’
Vonnegut’s appealing chalk outlines may have killed off my ability to see the small picture and the beauty in the everyday. Maybe I need to grow up. I felt amazing when I finished my degree, when I climbed a mountain in Morocco, and when I realise, every day, that I live with someone I love. There is drama in the details. There is a story arc in every day. I understand that. And still, I feel lost when I relinquish my idea that I will rise out of averageness. I appreciate averageness and want to escape it. Is it as simple as motivation? Does my version of the ‘happy ending’ act as a carrot on a stick to get me to do something every day. Or is it selfish vanity that prevents me from enjoying my life?
There is a moment in Arrival when Louise Banks says, ‘If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?’ When I think of Vonnegut’s stories and my average meals heaped, like Jacques’, on an Ikea white plate, I feel that I am seeing my whole life from start to finish. I already want to change so much and I feel ashamed and disappointed at the choices I have made. My life has been and will continue to be average without much change. I feel shame for wanting more, as if a life lived without incident is not enough. And I feel shame for ‘failing’, I feel like my potential has been wasted or I have wasted it. An average life is hemmed in by shame and I have nowhere to put these emotions. Perhaps this accounts for the growing number of books on ‘not giving a fuck’?
The blame for this mess seems to be external and internal. Society has set high standards and given us very few cultural models for a respectable average life, a successful average life. In fact there seem to be less and less cultural examples of ‘ordinariness’, even fake telegenic ‘ordinariness’. This may be just me but it feels like we used to have more family dramas (Growing Pains, Malcolm in the Middle, even The Simpsons) and now we have mostly escapism (Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Stranger Things, The Crown). Everything we are exposed to is groomed and earnestly pulling towards perfection, it makes our averageness seem even more dull and unacceptable. One episode of Big Little Lies and I want to burn all my belongings because they are so plain. Even reality TV has drifted from the moorings of ‘average’ lives. Remember Gillian McKeith rooting through a family’s cupboards and discussing their poo? What compares to that now? Pawn Stars? European cinema is better at stories about average people in average homes (why is that?). In Hollywood, The Florida Project asks similar questions about storytelling and reality and begins to move towards this non-genre of averageness. Let’s push for more.
Equally, as Kierkegaard said, I should take responsibility for the meaning in my life. I should know better than to look to HBO and a scrollable feed for meaning. Not even Oscar Wilde could keep up with Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr’s stream of aphorisms (he’d give it a good go though). Yet social media also appears as the tool to help us to create a meaningful narrative. The tools my generation are privileged enough to access are the ones that reveal me and isolate me in equal measure. I have never felt so open and honest and so secretive and ashamed at the same time.
Seeing Jacques’ photos startled me because they made me realise that the tools that make my life seem extraordinary also make me crave, if not ordinariness, then honesty. You could argue that if we make everything remarkable then nothing is remarkable, which may be another reason I’m looking for averageness, so that we can have a spectrum (back?). Although, I admit I don’t know what the aesthetics of honest averageness might be in 2018. Instagram is a major battleground I think- can we post more photos of normal homes, typical mess, median dinners?
My final thought on Jacques’ photos is that all of these thoughts come from a very middle class place. Recently, an American woman I had just met, a New Yorker, quipped that blogging only existed because there were so many privileged white women with so much time on their hands. I understand my privileged position. I am fortunate and, for anyone outside of this good fortune, my fear of ‘averageness’ may well be grotesque. I definitely agree that my vision of what a Cinderella ending looks like is disgustingly upper middle class and makes me, once again, aware of quite how much 80s television I’ve internalised. I’m asking for a lot and most of it is undergirded by piles of money.
The emotions I’m describing though are not purely privileged or purely about money. This is not a only a middle class problem. I think that everyone views their life as a narrative with them as the hero and that all of us, regardless of circumstances, wish for a rise in our fortunes. If anything, I think this must be one of the human traits that transcends class and race and gender and nationality. For that reason alone, we should probably try to understand it better.
I’m not done yet. I can and will keep working to achieve the things that are on my list. I will keep believing that they are possible, all the while preparing myself for the greater possibility that I will achieve nothing particular, that not very much will happen to me. The obvious objection to all of this, which you are probably shouting at your screens, is that by looking at the horizon line, I am missing the good stuff and diminishing the importance and joy of ‘everyday’ things. Passing your exams, having a job, getting a date, becoming a parent, all of these events are special, to the main character in the story, but also, let’s not forget, for the supporting characters. I often care more about my family and friends’ lives than my own. Perhaps that’s part of the answer, we need to care more about others than about ourselves.
I need to want less, or at least differently. I need to shed the invisibility cloak of my shame. That is my responsibility. I will use stories to do that and try to add my own versions of an average life into the cultural stream.
At the beginning of 2017, after Trump’s shocking election, journalists and political scientists spoke often of needing to tell the stories of the ‘missing middle’ to bring balance back into politics and the media. I think we need to keep doing that and extend it throughout culture, so that we can reconcile our expectations with our realities. Hopefully that will help us to find joy and satisfaction in an average life.