Fair to Middlin'

Mondays in Lent seem to provoke these stock-taking reflections. Last week it was fantasizing about all of the things that I wish I could change about myself. This morning, I found myself musing on how bad (or good) it would be if nothing ever changed. For example, with my fencing. I think, by now, I'm actually pretty good--pretty good, that is, not great--as witnessed by my finish in both Div II and Div III at the Atlanta NAC: spookily, indeed, near prophetically, exactly middle in both. I'm not great, but neither do I stink. This seems to be a pattern in my life.

My BMI, for instance: right at the top of what counts as "normal" for someone my age and height. Which makes me neither fat nor, frustratingly, thin (although I worry that even being here on the upper range of "normal" puts me, according to this calculator, in the 29th percentile of the population; can everyone else really be that much heavier than I am?). Or my rank: Associate Professor. Good, but not great, no precocious promotions to Full before I am 45. Maybe never (but perhaps this book will help, if I can get it published). Or my home: a condo in a very nice neighborhood, but not a house (oh, the dreams of the middle class; but, no, I refuse to move to suburbia).

It goes on (I made a list in the course of my morning pages this morning): I am neither monolingual nor, properly speaking, bilingual (I can read at least four languages well, three or four more with a dictionary at a pinch, but somehow I've never gotten past the most basic conversational skills in anything other than English). I have only one child so I am neither childless nor, again, properly speaking, a Mother (not like the colleague in my department who has four!). I have been married twice, but am still married to the father of my son, so I don't really feel divorced (at least, not in that gut-wrenching "who will the children live with" way). I am relatively fit but not athletically so (I doubt I would be mistaken for an athlete if anyone saw me who didn't know I fence). I eat well but not perfectly (too many cookies, albeit Fig Newmans, not enough vegetables and fruit). I have published well but not brilliantly (at least, not in terms of items published); my book has gone paperback, but is nowhere near being anything like a bestseller. I have lived abroad (for upwards of five years) but only ever in England and Wales. I have had guinea pigs and cats for pets, but no dogs since I was a child (and dogs, as we all know, are the only real pets, requiring as they do a Walk every day; cats are great that way, they go in the litter box). And on, and on.

I was amazed at the ways in which I was so consistently, yes, middling. The thing is, how does this make me feel? I could tell it another way, listing only my accomplishments; or, conversely, focus only on my defeats. In the balance, it's actually pretty brilliant being so comfortably OK. So I'm not an Olympic athlete, but then I am not an invalid, either. So I'm not a best-selling author (if only!), but I have published a prize-winning book. I'm not a full professor with an endowed chair like some of my contemporaries, but I have a job that I like in the profession for which I am trained. It seems churlish to want things to be any different. Including, if I think about it, how well I write or I fence. So what if, as seems actually fairly likely, I never advance in rating? So what if the best I can hope for is a limited (in the low thousands) sale for my books? So what if I stay an Associate Professor for the rest of my career? Will it actually make any difference to the work that I do?

It shouldn't. As least, not ideally, which is what we're talking about here. Ideally, I should not care about such externals as rank (academic or competitive); ideally, I should just do what I do and not worry about how I compare. Sometimes, it works. I actually feel pretty comfortable at the moment realizing how securely situated I am, in the middle. Not a child, but not old; like Goldilocks--or Dante--in the middle of life. But one day, I will no longer be in the middle, and then what will I feel? Satisfied that I did the best I could, even if, compared to others, it was only so-so? Or disappointed that somehow I never managed to achieve that best-selling trope, of being outstanding at something, you know, like all those fictional characters who are, seemingly incidentally, the best in their field? The thing is, if I am going to keep at it, whether with writing or fencing, I have to accept that this may, in fact, be the case: I will never be first.

Can I live with that? Could you?


  1. Interesting. To me, the middle sounds like a comfortable, and comforting place to be. I focus on how at the margin I am, and it makes me feel profoundly isolated from society. Whether it is my Myers Briggs profile (INTJ), my politics (socialist), my religious stance (atheist) and on and on, I fall in a one or two percent tail of society. Most of it doesn't feel special in any way. It just creates a distance that sometimes feels almost unbridgeable between me and the vast majority of my fellow travelers.

    And it makes me profoundly grateful we live in a (mostly) tolerant and pluralistic society, because otherwise I would certainly be one of the first ones targeted :).

  2. I'm actually INTJ myself, so I know what you mean. "Middle" here is a relative term: most people our age, ahem, don't fence after all, so what does it mean to be in the middle of a minority? I think there's a clue here in my BMI "middleness" which is actually towards the tail end of the curve (okay, sort of in the middle of the tail). We typically only see ourselves in comparison with those who are already most like us so, e.g. I don't spend my time comparing myself to others who live in houses in small towns or who have jobs as accountants.

  3. Funny you should post this just now. I've had similar ideas running through my head for the past couple of weeks - I am competent but not expert at a variety of things and it seems like if I WERE truly brilliant at something I'd put myself under more pressure than I already do.

    And, introverts of the internet unite!


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