Cultivating a Mediocre Life

I used to have a set of Sesame Street cassette tapes when I was young…I think I was in my early twenties when I got them. I would listen to them when I drove around in my car. My favorite story on these cassettes was the one about cookie monster going to look for the meaning of life. He eventually ends up meeting a spiritual teacher on top of a mountain and the teacher poses the question to him: “You can either have everlasting joy and happiness…or these cookies.” I don’t have to tell you how this story ends. Ahhhm nam nam nam nam.

I was reminded of this story today as my partner and I were discussing a quote she read on an instagram page that says “You did not wake up today to be mediocre.” Kara stated that she wants to be mediocre and that being great all the time sounds exhausting. We were talking about the word mediocre and looked up its etymology. It literally means “halfway up a mountain.”

When I was almost a teenager I lived in East Africa and climbed Mount Kenya. Halfway up the mountain is about when you realize that the plants begin to resemble something Theodor Geisel would have imagined. This also seems to be an apt metaphor for middle age: an overwhelming strange beauty that is difficult to pay attention to because you are so focused on the destination and the need for achievement.

My memories from our ascent are of my friends lips turning blue as we neared the top. We witnessed the wreck of a helicopter that had attempted to rescue a climber but crashed. We took turns warming one of our friends, who had hypothermia, by climbing into his sleeping bag to warm him. I think back on the dangers and wonder about what our goal was of making it to the top.

Gary Smith wrote a beautiful article in ‘Vault’ on Ian Howell’s first climb up Mount Kenya. https://www.si.com/…/622474/a-day-in-the-life-of-mount-kenya.

Ian Howell has climbed Mount Kenya more than 160 times—probably twice as many times as any man ever—but he remembers the first time well. He had paused at an altitude of 14,000 feet, nauseated from his exertions and the thin air and awed by what remained, when two Africans appeared through the mist, dragging a goat up to the base of the peak. The snow was coming down hard when they saw one another: the white man, with his nylon all-weather clothing, his portable cooking gear, his shiny climbing spikes and axes and his book about the mountain; and the black men, with their hair in dreadlock strings down to their buttocks, flimsy white gowns and bare feet. The black men stretched their hands toward the summit, fell to their knees, strangled the goat and prayed to the god on the peak for rain. The white man climbed the summit and exulted.

I think about how the group I climbed with had a goal of making it to the top of the mountain. The reason that we were climbing was to make it to the top.

I receive so many messages throughout the average day related to how to make it to the ‘top’…living my greatest/peak/higher/better life. Most of the these messages are either suggesting that I buy a product or service or letting me know about someone else’s peak life conquering event. I feel like we are being asked to live on the mountaintop. Why? The two Kenyans who Ian Howell met, were on the mountain to make a sacrifice for rain, so that life might continue for those down in the valley. What was I there to do?

When you mention the word ‘yoga’ in conversation it is often met with the response of “I’m not flexible.” This annoys my partner to no end: that yoga has been collapsed into flexibility. Kara schooled us the other day on the difference between flexibility and mobility. My simplified understanding of her eloquent description is that flexibility is the furthest point that can be travelled to and often involves pulling or pushing from outside to achieve this. Mobility is what can be done under the muscles’ own strength and also involves the furthest extension that can still have functional strength…or maybe it would be the furthest extension that can be reached while still connected to the core and rooted into the feet or earth. When Kara was explaining this I realized that the same thing holds true on many levels.

We think of living our greatest life as being synonymous with extreme peak experiences that we often force ourselves into. (Quick snap the photo!) We push past all limits in order to achieve our ‘greatest self.’ We have massive debts of all types that we have accrued in pursuit of greatness. We ignore that these debts leave a hole somewhere as we continue to push. Young people die trying to do a handstand on a skyscraper or catch a bullet with a book. You only live once so kick life’s ass…right? Be all that you can be…and more. Have the most exotic instagram, facebook, autobiography…and on and on.

But why is it the peak we glorify?

I’ve read that the Kikuyu people of Kenya have a god named Ngai that dwells on top of (Mount Kenya) Kirinyaga. Ngai’s wife Mumbi lives below the mountain in a grove of fig trees. How amazing is it that majesty and the fertile ability to create life live in different locations? I wonder how and where they connect. There must be a path.

I grieve as I write this thinking about the overwhelming isolation of the culture we have created. Living our ‘ultimate’ lives that we share in almost entirely disembodied social media formats (like I am doing now). How do I value that my experiences are of merit, not for being extreme, but for being able to feed life? When we are so conditioned to not pay attention to that point beyond which we cannot connect back to the core or village, how do we learn to develop an awareness of that? There must be a path.

I never thought that coming down the mountain would be so hard. Toes smashed into the front of shoes. Sliding in the razor sharp scree. Getting down to base camp, where those who were too sick to go to the peak were staying, and encountering their heavy disappointment. We were unsure how to share our exultation with them. And finally, we trudged all the way back to the minivan that would return us to the city.

I’ve heard Martin Shaw speak of our culture as being ‘addicted to disclosure.’ Disclosure is not the same as Digestion. Disclosure is a picture of the mountaintop posted online. Digestion is more like struggling your way back down the mountain and trying to find out how the view you had feeds the world. It’s really damn hard. I am trying to figure out how to do it in my life and I have no pointers to share with you…or maybe I have one: try being mediocre.

Here’s a prayer I’ve been digesting. I stole from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin…and changed some words.

Patient Trust
Above all, trust in the slow work of Life.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them digest,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only Life could say what this new way of being
gradually forming within you will feed.
Give yourself the benefit of believing
that Life is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense, incomplete, and mediocre.

modified and stolen from—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ
(excerpted from his Hearts on Fire)