In life, a number of things are intrinsically tied to our self-worth, whether we like to admit it or not. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that we all like to be well-regarded amongst a large group of people that we don’t particularly care for, and to an extent, that’s true. Whether we have few or many friends, we like to think that people like us — even the ones we don’t like back. When we are in dating world, we tend to project faults onto the other person. It was their fault that they didn’t like us. Our friends then tell us that we’re gorgeous and perfect. He’s insane for not going out with us again. He’s a serial murderer. He’s the worst. We’re better off without him.
We are absolutely better off without people who aren’t that interested in being with us, but all of this is part of a carefully constructed lie that we tell ourselves — to help sustain our own Hero Myths. We need to believe that we are the lead character in our own life, rather than a supporting character in a grand narrative, one we all share. Although it serves a purpose by affording us self-identification and meaning in an empty universe (fuck you, Sartre), our social existentialism often makes us into accidental narcissists, so wrapped up in our place within the universe that we forget to just be in it and allow it to exist around us.
When we are young, we are told a number of things, almost all of which aren’t exactly true. We’re told we’re important, special and going to change the world someday — which, in a grand sense, isn’t the case. If we look at ourselves as the main characters in the narrative, it’s unlikely that we will affect the kind of change we’re told we have the power to. Most of us aren’t going to start revolutions or be a part of the uprising. We’re going to live quiet lives spent in the company of friends, neighbors and family, somewhere pitched between love and war, the place where much of life unfolds. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that American lives don’t have second acts. They do. They just go unsung.
We have to believe that we are going to be different, like Harry Potter. We are the boy who lives, the one who makes it out of the small town or the one who leaves. Our own specialness gives us hope that one day, we will do something great. We will write the Great American novel. We will catch the Great white whale. However, what we achieve in life doesn’t have to be unique to have meaning and purpose; our greatness isn’t tied to how forward-thinking we are. Our greatness doesn’t need to start with a capital “G.” Our great life might be perfectly ordinary.
If you grow up in a small town, you’re told that everything changes when you move to a big city. I’m from Cincinnati, and almost everyone I know in Chicago is secretly from Ohio; you share this bond of being Ohio ex-pats — of people who made it out. When we came here, we were all sold the myth that moving to another city instantly made you grander and more successful, like you moved into an Edith Wharton novel, without all the undercurrents of sadness and emotional repression. Girls smartly satirizes this. Hannah looks at herself in the mirror before a date with someone from her hometown and tells herself that as a New Yorker, she’s automatically more interesting. It’s the lie that we’re sold, what keeps us trudging through bad public transit and paying exorbitant rents. We want to have the Great American life.
I think about this when I think about my grandparents, who are well into the third acts of their lives, and who are quietly some of the best people that I know, while living absolutely ordinary lives. My grandparents have both worked at the IRS for thirty years, a job they both hate, and my grandfather usually passes out on the couch before he can finish an episode of The Wire. He barely speaks and tends to just listen to those around him, taking in what they say with grave interest. When he does speak, his words take on almost mythical importance. He once described dubstep as a “whale having an orgasm.”
However, my grandfather’s life is not without interest, and I think that Saul Bellow, John Updike and Philip Roth would have loved him as a subject. He’s someone who spent most of his life taking care of his ailing father and then doting on his wife — who has enough personality for both of them. My grandmother acts as our family matriarch, with unchallenged authority over what happens to the family, and my grandfather mostly goes along for the ride. I’ve tried to ask him how he feels about his, always living his life for other people, but he can’t seem to articulate it. Grandfather is like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, unable to articulate a fate grander than his understanding.
When I think of the Great Novels, they are populated with characters more like my grandparents than myself — brought up in the generation that was told we had to be self-consciously weird to be interesting. Steinbeck’s Joads, E. Annie Proulx’s Quoyle, Jane Austen’s Bennett Sisters and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield all lead what are perfectly average lives, elevated to supreme importance by being transcribed to the page. Although we idealize Elizabeth Bennett’s romantic adventures, what’s more commonplace than falling in love?
For Austen, she didn’t mean the story to be a statement of grand romantic love but the travails of courtship in the 19th century and the pressures young women face. Careful readers note that Elizabeth Bennett doesn’t start falling in love with Darcy when his true intentions are revealed. Her feelings about him start to change when she sees his house. (Austen’s own diaries confirm these authorial intentions.) The book isn’t a declaration of love but a sign that Elizabeth’s story of landing her man isn’t unique. She’s chained to the same societal constraints her sisters are. What makes her interesting isn’t that she’s different but that she’s ultimately the same.
I think that reason that so many women idealize Jane Austen’s work is that we need to believe in extraordinary things — whether that’s an all-consuming love or a life that seems impossible. We need our fantasies to give us wings, whether we find them in novels or our own lives. I’m often reminded of the girl in American Beauty who clings to her self-created image of being pretty, popular and famous, out of the belief that there’s nothing worse than being ordinary. She’s the kind of girl who needs to be noticed and needs to be different. A lot of us are that girl. I’ve been that girl.
We want to be noticed and seen for the person we are, which is why Freud believed that people got tattoos. They signified that the carrier had a hidden message that they needed to be conveyed. We get tattoos because we want people to look at them. When we get a “cool haircut,” it’s because we want to stand out and signify a projected image of ourselves. We don’t just want to be our true selves but our selves heightened and perfected for visual consumption.
In Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, he talks about the idea of the front stage and the back stage in sociality. The front stage is the parts of ourselves that we hope to convey to the world — the qualities we like and hope to give off. It’s the face we put on. It isn’t a lie, but a version of the truth, a better version. The back stage is reality, our true selves, the parts we don’t necessarily like or let people see right away. If your front stage is the self you present on the first date, your back stage is your married self, the person you can’t hide after years of being around someone.
We love front stages, the compelling versions of other people. When we look at Meryl Streep, we don’t see a person. We see a goddess, an infallible human being incapable of fault. We don’t see someone who eats, has normal phone conversations or has to go to the store to buy glasses like we do. We don’t see that her life is also ordinary; she just lives it on a giant movie screen. A friend of mine (who is friends with Glenn Close’s daughter) once told me that Glenn Close got explosive diarrhea in Europe. If that’s not the ultimate representation of the back stage, I don’t know what is.
The more you live in the world, the more the veil is taken off of the front stage. None of us are as infinitely special or interesting as we would like to believe, but that doesn’t mean our lives don’t have merit and that we can’t be a part of a greater scheme. Even though my grandfather isn’t an exceptional man, he’s taught me what quiet strength is and that our unsung heroes might be some of our finest. He doesn’t have to be an intricately complex snowflake to have a life that merits looking at. He just has to exist, whether the universe bothers to pay attention or not.
Whenever I feel lost about my place in the universe, I think about something Neil Degrasse Tyson once said and remember that I don’t have to be unique to fulfill my purpose. If you think about the formation of the universe, we all derive from the same matter, whether you want to call that matter God, the Big Bang or Stephen Hawking’s “Super Mass.” We all come from this same place, a matter that binds us together. When we look at a plant or the sky, we can find solace in knowing that we all are all made out of the same material. The code that makes us isn’t unique, but part of a larger pattern of the universe. We’re a piece of a quilt whose design we can’t even begin to understand.
That might be depressing if you were raised to believe there’s nothing else like you in the world, but I find solace in knowing that the moon and the stars are inside me. Even if I’m not unique, the very idea of existing in a universe as infinitely arcane — one that entirely takes place behind the back stage — is an extraordinary thing. Your existence is a transcendent act, because you carry the universe inside you. You might not be extraordinary by yourself, but when you look at the bigger picture, you know: we are extraordinary together.