The Weakest Reed

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.

Musings on The State Fair and Exceptionalism

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As may be the privilege of many Americans, I grew up with the idea that I was special. That I had a purpose. That my life would be unique in its meaning and impact on the world. But instead, I’ve not escaped perhaps what is the greatest insult of middle age; learning that I am ordinary. I didn’t do something remarkable before I was 30. I didn’t become the smartest, most talented, most charitable or most peacemaking person in my community, my state, my country, my world. I have made my small impacts here and there, but to my great horror I turned out to be just another one of those people with my mini-van, my mortgage and the inescapable, slow effects of gravity and a declining metabolism pulling and morphing my body into something flabbier and shabbier.

So going to the State Fair, roaming around with all the other Minnesotans yesterday was an oddly comforting experience. What some dub The Great Minnesota Get Together could also be tagged as The Great Minnesota Equalizer. Everyone is unabashedly engaging in what would otherwise be the socially-shaming experience of exclusively consuming undeniably junky food. Everyone is getting dustier and sweatier and crabbier as the day grows longer and patience grows shorter. Everyone‘s shoes are littered with the effects of tromping through animal waste in crowded barns and people waste in public bathrooms. Looking out over the waves and waves of humans, what becomes obvious is how utterly and inescapably ordinary everyone is. There are slight variations on themes but, as one artist so stunningly portrays in this photographic project, looking across all humankind even the stand-outs do it in ways that don’t actually stand out that much.

I described this experience of ordinariness as comforting at The Fair, but actually that’s unusual for me. Most moments I find it to be extremely depressing. I tend to be a person who places a high value on things that are novel or unique. To me, same layered upon same dulls senses and starves the brain and sucks meaning out of life. It makes me wonder what the point of it all is, like a world of nearly indistinguishable robotic humanoids all running on very large, almost identical gerbil wheels. You know that movie, Groundhog Day? I hated it. Too close to my own personal nightmare for me to enjoy the humor of it. Every day the exact same thing. Surely, my sanity would fail more quickly than I’d like to admit.

When I got ready for the fair that morning, I thought about the people I would inevitably run into at that meeting place of Minnesotans and, I confess, I found myself applying a bit of make-up at the last minute, a weak antidote to my aging face and the fatigue of parenthood . I pictured running across old, school friends or ex-boyfriends and the self-consciousness I’d feel wondering what they were thinking about all the ways I’d changed to be someone they wouldn’t have any good reason to notice instead of someone they might.

So maybe that’s why it was comforting yesterday to be another imperfect body in the crowd and notice how ordinary everyone else is too. I realized that nobody escapes it. No one, not one single person, could perfectly hide the bulging or sagging or sweating or slumping or stinking that is common to all humanity. Being part of the masses yesterday at the fair, all the ways in which I hadn’t achieved exceptionalism felt less like a personal failure and more like just one of those things that you might remark about wryly but with a sense of warmth when you’re at a family reunion. You look around and realize it would have been virtually impossible to escape that lame, punny Sheild sense of humor or the Madison sweet tooth and you think that really, it’s kind of nice to know that you belong.

But, being mildly neurotic and overly analytical are also deeply woven into my genetics and so, too quickly this feeling of comfort leaves me and I am again overcome by the persistent nagging idea that a life lacking in noteworthiness is also lacking in meaning. I mean, what IS the point of all of it? When I have died, will there be anything that marks my life as having been more than just one like a trillion others that have taken a few rides around this spinning planet, a cosmic hamster wheel in an immeasurably vast universe?

Really, The State Fair is a great context for this inner monologue because the Fair is all about exceptionalism. The largest boar. The biggest pumpkin. The finest strawberry-rhubarb pie. The most noteworthy work of crop art (if you haven’t ever seen crop art, picture Elvis or The Last Supper in astonishing detail and complexity, created solely from beans and seeds).

It can seem kind of silly if you think too hard about it. We all gather annually to honor these things that makes us special and then The Fair will end and next year a whole new crop of pigs/pies/pumpkins will take their place. And to be honest, we may or may not be able to really tell the difference between last year’s and this year’s winners. We may find ourselves thinking what my 4-year-old daughter very loudly and with the great haughtiness only a 4-year-old or a 14-year-old feels free to express when viewing the largest tomato in the whole state of Minnesota: “Well, that tomato is not that big!”

But really, if we get down to it, aren’t most of the ways we measure exceptionalism pretty trite? Winners and their records come and go, most less memorable than we hope and always someone is out there ready to take our place at the podium or disparage our right to be there. We can measure accomplishment at the local 4H or at the County Fair or at the State Fair or even at the Nobel Conference or at the Olympics but if you zoom out from the fair far enough, we’re just an even bigger mass of humans covering the world like ants and if you zoom in close enough, we’re all just a collection of molecules. And I can’t help it. I can’t seem to think my way around it, it’s horrifying to me!

I am realizing that my feelings about whether or not my life is special or unique are all tied up in my ideas about worthiness. Is my value as a human being determined by whether or not I am somehow exceptional? Does a Nobel prize or a blue ribbon or a gold star or a pat on the back really make me my life any more or less important?

I am trying to think differently about it because if my whole definition of being special is determined by whether or not I stand out in a crowd of people, then I’m chained to a value system that is dependent on comparing myself to others. Am I bigger than/ smaller than, worse than/ better than, more than/ less than somebody else. When I see it clearly, it feels like a horrible sickness that can only distort the way I see myself and also, disgustingly, the way I see others.  The whole system runs the risk of devaluing us all when we inevitably don’t measure up to someone else’s measuring stick. Or livestock scale.

This idea of needing to be exceptional in order to be worthy is a grand and pervasive deception. The truth is that what makes my life have value is not anything about my appearance or accomplishments.  If it were, when those things passed away or faltered my worth would as well. When tastes changed or I changed, my value would too. How could we all live  in a system that is as wispy and fickle as all that?

I am worthy and each of us is worthy because the God of the universe thought to give each of us life and breath. He did this because it gave him joy to create each of us. He had in mind from before you or I was born who and where and what each one would be and, the greatest thing of all, He did all of this so that He could be in a relationship with every single one of us.  Not because He needed us, just because He wanted us.

It is incredibly humbling and yet incredibly liberating to know that God doesn’t need anything special from me. He doesn’t need me to change the world or make a difference or shape the course of human events. He can do this without me. But still, he created me (and yes, still He will use me for a purpose. Please Lord, make my life something beautiful to you!). But I am worthy of existing not because of all I can do.  My life is worth living  because God made me and created all the circumstances around me to point me towards a relationship with Him.  How would my life change if I could really live knowing this were true?

Acts 17: 24-28

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

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