This is a dangerous post because the risk is high that it will reek of self-congratulation. I can only hope that my stating from the very start that this is not my intention will be adequate assurance for the reader. And maybe this caveat is the foremost symptom of what I’d like to talk about: the confusion, fear, and hatred that is stirred up by excellence. After all, why should one be ashamed to admit that much of what he does is in the unapologetic pursuit of excellence?
As a musician, I have had entirely too much opportunity to reflect on the way the American booboisie embraces mediocrity. (And lest my current employers find this post, they should know that I am not speaking of them.) I was once an organist for a church in the fields of Pennsylvania, and I enjoyed remarking (only to the trustworthy, of course) that if there were ever a contest to compose the best parish motto, I would submit, “We excel at mediocrity.” It was the kind of place that liked to do crappy stuff well, which to me seems a waste of time. Why put all that effort into something which could never be good, since the raw materials—a bad piece of music, a ridiculous liturgical dance, etc.—were piles of dung? But this attitude on their part flowed from a hatred of excellence.
As a runner, I have seen less the hatred of excellence but more the confusion that it rouses in people. I run by perfectly capable but overweight people sitting on their porches who look at me as if to say, “Why would anyone want to do that?” A 32″ waist and legendarily-low blood pressure is why. But most people haven’t the patience. Most of them have endured too much disappointment in life to try any more. “Just give me my paycheck and leave me alone to watch my favorite TV shows.” It is not my intention to judge; many of these folks have made a calculated choice based upon past experience, having been beaten into submission by an overlord who “knows better.”
Capitalism—or perhaps more accurately, the almighty dollar—has often shouldered the blame for our institutionalized mediocrity. “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” said Mencken. But the real problem is human nature: enjoying a piece of fine art, cooking a fine meal, and exercising to stay in shape all require hard work, and most of us avoid that at all costs. This has a lot to do with the shortsightedness which Henry Hazlitt talks about: most people haven’t the wherewithal to forego a short term gain in favor of a greater return in the long run. This translates into higher economic demand for stuff that is crappy, and business owners respond accordingly, to the great disappointment of their idealistic employees.
At times in my life I’ve been tempted to give up and retreat into my inner room in despair over all this. If my efforts are misunderstood or despised, what’s the use? But this can never be the final word: excellence is ultimately its own reward. But that reward will rarely come in the form of congratulations from others; more often the pay-off is integrity and honesty.
None of this is to say that there are not great injustices which thrash against those who see the possibility for better things. Jesus, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King all met with the cruelest fate in this regard. There are others who have suffered less but not insignificantly: last week one of our time’s foremost musical talents was rudely dismissed from an institution which has decided to embrace something—I’m not sure what—over musical excellence.
Given what I’ve said so far, I’ve even become suspicious of compliments, particularly coming from certain people with attachments to certain places that have a tendency to enjoy a comfortably nondescript artistic malaise. I’m also quite slow to accept anyone’s advice: “Ok you’ve lost enough weight now,” I heard repeatedly last year. “No I haven’t; you’re just jealous,” was usually my retort.
It’s hard to know what to do about all this, exactly. Anger and frustration only turn me into one of those people who have given up. For my musical side I always have the ideal of beauty to help me along; in other things there are other rewards. Maybe the secret lies in a teleological perspective: Each of our lives has a purpose, an end, which it is our duty to pursue. For now I suppose that will have to be the answer, especially since there is now a bad storm here and I need to get off line, lest my computer be torched.