On Becoming Ordinary

One of my goals for going to graduate school was actually to become ordinary.

In my mind, it went like this: I am always a superfluous student. I do more than I need to, know more than I need to, and am the source of answers to so many people who are stuck. I stress myself unnecessarily because I’m trying to be perfect. So when I go to school this time, I will be a “B” student. I will relax. I will do fun things. I will not study–cough, hardly at all, anyway. I will learn to try to be ordinary, because being extraordinary at school is not worth it: it comes at too high of a cost, and its rewards are not great enough, and there are too many other things to attend to.

Some, this has happened. Some, I have let go. Some, it is okay(ish) now if I don’t get 103 on the exam. The weird thing that I didn’t expect, though, was rising up of others. That the “normal” would come up. Really up.

I don’t mean I thought I was the smartest person in the world. I didn’t. I don’t. I don’t mean that that I’m floundering, unable to comprehend, either. Or that I’m out of my league. Actually, what I really mean is that I’m in my league, possibly for the first time ever. And it feels really, really weird.

At first I was going to use the word “humbling” and I guess there is some of that. I mean, I think I noticed myself thinking the other day that I wasn’t special any more (yes, I laughed at myself when I noticed what I was thinking). But partly, it’s also weird. I realize I am using that word a lot without really explaining it, but that’s where I’m at–I don’t really know what to make of it.

I studied for this last exam harder and longer than I’ve ever studied for anything before, ever. Again, I have to point out that it wasn’t hard to understand. I’ve seen too many of my relatives go to engineering school to be silly enough to pretend that this is “hard to comprehend.” But the shear volume was staggering–and it wasn’t just concepts; it was concepts and skills and facts and numbers–hands on and under pressure and performing and no forgetting and time limits. And again, I must point out that my typically studying for most exams this semester amounts to reviewing my notes the night before, which I think still makes some of my classmates want to stone me–and now, in graduate school, I think many other classmates are doing something similar and scoring similarly. I felt a little guilty, realizing it was the hardest I’d ever studied–knowing how so many other people have had to study that hard so often.

But there is also this odd feeling I’m not used to of “running in the pack.” Not leading the pack, and not deigning to retire from leading, and leisurely taking a break in the middle of the pack. And not falling to the back of the pack. Just hurtling along with everyone else, just like everyone else. . .

And this is not who I am. I am not anything like anyone else. My life doesn’t look like anyone else’s and I don’t fit anyone else’s molds, and no one understands me. . .and yet I’m running in the pack.

Kind of.

If I were really one of the pack, I’d go out drinking with them and skiing with them. I’d make crass jokes with them, and I would study with the them while painting my nails and/or drinking. I don’t drink, ski, make crass jokes or paint my nails, so I can’t very well do it with them. But I used to feel like my studiousness was part of my otherness. I just took things that seriously; no one else would really get it. Now, no matter how studious I am, there is someone just as studious or more studious.

Do I want to go back to being “special”? Not really. It is more stressful. People think you have all the answers. Your best never quite seems good enough, because even when it is good enough, it seems unsatisfying, unresolved, what you had to do. But in all honesty, I’m still not sure what to do with “ordinary”. How do you do “ordinary” well? If I am ordinary now, what to ordinary people do? I feel very tentative, peering from behind bushes, wondering if I can really join the others–if they would let me join.

I suppose this sounds like a trite “it’s lonely at the top” kind of post, but it’s not. I mean, it is lonely at the top. And the middle, and the bottom, and everywhere. That’s not the point. The point is that shifting cultures, shifting castes, joining a different tribe–it’s not as simple as maybe it first sounds. It doesn’t matter if it’s up, down, sideways, or all in your head–there’s still so much to learn and think about. And it still always involves a loss of some piece of self-identity, or perhaps a better way of saying it is that it involves a smelting of part of your self-identity. What is must be heated, deformed, made liquid; what is not true must be burnt away as false. And as you cool, you do so in a new shape or form–but even this is not the end, as life continually refines you, ever distilling.

And I think part of the odd feeling is being in that liquid state. It’s hard to not want to grab on to something to define yourself. Conform to others; adopt a chip on your shoulder; joint a movement; withdraw into whatever you do know as true about yourself. There are a lot of options, and I think which we chose is most often just taking the path of water–which ever is easiest for us. I’ve felt out almost all of those options this semester. I think I most often withdrew into whatever I knew was true about myself, but mostly because anything else took energy, and I was emotionally exhausted.

I don’t know what will happen next semester. I don’t think I will really become ordinary, in part because I don’t really believe that ordinary exists. I guess mostly I’m finding myself in that odd spot of finding out that I was right: so much of my challenges and learning while in graduate school has nothing to do with the curriculum. But I hope that it does make me a better person. And it’s tempting to get caught up in words like accomplished, socializing skills, more definition, more carefree. . .but I would hope it would create in other things. More patience. More gentleness. More wisdom, discernment. More bravery and courage. More hope. More joy. More love.

Change is always hard, but it can be good.

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