Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Fear of Mediocrity

University used to be a time for reflection. It was time well spent away from all distractions to figure out how to live the 40-60 years ahead of you, what to accomplish within that short time. I wonder how much of this kind of musing still occurs today, in the daily lives of undergraduate university students. I won't expect there to be many.

Perhaps they already figured out what they want to do, where they “fit” in society. Maybe they feel that the economy does not allow for that kind of luxury – the luxury of doing something beyond mere stagnation. Well, idealism is a luxury, isn't it?

Norman Bethune is said to have feared mediocrity. He had a peculiar intolerance towards it. Bethune is a surgeon who helped the Chinese resistance against the Japanese invasion, and is one of the few westerners hailed as a hero by the Chinese. In some sense he is the perfect idealist – he gave up the comforts of Canada to work in the battlefields in China, because that's where people needed him the most. Yet his lonely life in China made his life anything but ideal. During his days in China he longed for an English newspaper, yet what he got was a case of blood poisoning that resulted in his death in a tiny Hebei village.

It's fitting to recall this saying about how you should aim for the moon, because even if you don't make it you'd land on one of the stars. What they fail to mention is that the journey to the stars is both lonely and lengthy, and the years spent in the darkness of space are irredeemable. In fact, you often don't know where you're going, and may never get there! The universe is big – so incredibly big – and the chances that we can make a true impact are so tiny that some of us think of it as negligible.

If idealism is not luxurious, what does mediocrity have to offer? The work-8-hour-days-till-you're-40-then-have-a-midlife-crisis plan? The rat race? The push to publish, publish, publish? I'd say that the concept of mediocrity is much like the concept of degeneracy in Mathematics: you see the endless possibilities, the countless dimensions that can be spanned by the hyperplane, only to find that all the parameters cancel out and you are left with a single point in the space. The mediocre life is also the unexamined life, and as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living.

I remember in philosophy class in grade 12, we had to answer the question, “Is Socrates a great man?” As I loved being the devil's advocate, I wrote a piece about how Socrates was not a great man. My argument was this: many other people at the time may have mused about life as well, and had similar ideas. Socrates could have been an average man who happened to be vocal and have a large follower. Thinking back, I'm ashamed of having argued that. A man who could think like Socrates is indeed rare. Besides, would anyone else but the idealist die for his ideas?

You may comment, quite rightly so, that the insane person may do the same. You may go further to say that the idealist is insane. What is more precious than a simple life enjoyed, pleasure maximized, and happiness sustained? If Bethune could live again, would he have stayed in Canada?

I hope that even if Bethune choose to stay in Canada, he would do so not because of a shift in ideology, but as a result of knowing that China is not as glamorous as he had thought. He may not choose China again, but I don't think he would stoop to mediocrity. He will shine in other ways.

Mediocrity is too safe. The riskiest thing one can do in today's society is to play safe. It guarantees the bare minimum out of all that life offers: the dull and unexamined life that have zero impact on your person and the world. It is a life that you can live over and over and over again without growth. No matter how little chance we have of making a difference in ourselves, our own world or the world at large, that chance is worth taking. Because really, what else can we live for?

I sit here befuddled. Where would I go in the next 40-60 years? I don't know. I know for sure, though, that I will continue to be marveled by the beauty and intricacy inherent in our world. Sometimes I feel as if life is saying to me in that whimsical voice, “Come on Lisa, you should be able to figure everything out now! All the clues are out there, just put them together...” I wonder if many others hear that same voice.

End of Entry