Most of us, including this writer, are run-of-the-mill types. I live an ordinary life, often ho-hum, conventional, a nondescript yawn. I am not renowned, nothing particularly noteworthy, living Thoreau’s “quiet desperation,” sharing humanity’s unglamorous cameo knowing in three or four generations my memory will be wiped clean from the earth. Fresh from reading how the Greeks influenced western civilization, the ancient dictum, Apollo’s Delphic Temple’s know thyself came to mind. Socrates’ an unexamined life is not worth living was derived from this adage.
Though the dictum’s primary message is self-introspective, the Delphic Temple directive to know thyself pursued several interpretations through the centuries. One obscure meaning is: I stand before the vast universe small, insignificant, and eminently transient. In other words, know your place in the scheme of life. I reflected on this wisdom that seemed to challenge a world inebriated with self-adulation.
Who do I think I am? Standing before the immeasurable universe humbles me, grounds me in a self-effacing reality, and challenges unrealistic unhealthy attitudes of inflated self-regard. “I’m a regular person,” who sometimes over-estimates his true value, like Cheetah thinking he’s King Kong. An overstated self-view begets behaviors that often view others less-than, a conceit that sits in judgment and fails to nurture egalitarian relationships. This one interpretation of the Delphic maxim is a viewpoint countering the illusion of self-centeredness, a healthy perspective to live by.
But there’s more. While in Florence, Italy, immersed in the city of astonishing art and opulent history, wandering about soaking up ancient churches and heroes of the past, artists who enriched culture and philosophers who shaped it, I realized how insignificant and average my life really is. I have left no mark on history; have contributed little to influence culture, just existing in my small circle of family and friends until death finds me. To my family I am important and will be for a couple of generations until I fade from consciousness, like “dust in the wind.” Life’s impermanence demands I quiz who I am and why I am here.
As a teenager, I developed my own humanistic philosophy of life by existential necessity. Self-worth hinged on hairstyle, groovy clothes, hip footwear or no footwear, cool beads or colorful headbands, and what girls I could date — in other words, externals determined my value. I was okay if I had the right stuff. If I dawned vogue apparel of paisley and bell-bottoms I might be considered in, and if I dated a pretty girl I could even be cool. “Skin over soul” was the meme. I was immature mixed with insecurity and sprinkled with foolishness. I lived, moved, and had my being on the thin ice of externals and I pursued life with abandon in my attempt to find meaning and rise above the flock.
While musing such thoughts, I was reminded God has a penchant for the lowly and insignificant. If current culture dismisses your value, God does the opposite. God has a particular fondness for Average People who are trying to keep their heads above water, make ends meet, not rock the boat, and get to the finish line, as well as those farther down the totem pole of societal ranking. (When feeling banal life can be a cliché.) I am not a star or a hero, not chairman of any board, not a community leader, I am a model for no one, just an ordinary middle-of-the road, run-of-the mill pew sitter, and apparently God likes me.
Nobody aims at mediocrity but many hit the mark. Countless reach their sunset years and realize the impact of their lives was forgettable. Some might disagree, but my mind tells me differently. On a scale of 1-10, I’m a 5. Few rise to the heights of fame, wealth, and power, and most learn to accept being an Average Joe (or Jane). Some even relish the anonymity of not being seen or heard.
Jesus understood nothingness and obscurity. He lived among the average and ordinary. Consider His hometown Nazareth, a podunk backwater town, a zero town, with a whopping population of 400. Dirt streets, no town center, and no public inscriptions — nearly all were illiterate anyway. Nazareth produced nothing to export and imported nothing, and there is hardly any physical evidence left to mark it ever existed. It’s probable no one in Nazareth ever laid eyes on a Roman soldier, it was so unimportant and isolated.
Jesus was familiar with anonymity. He grew up in a non-descript hamlet amongst fellow villagers of irrelevant importance.1 Not to mention that Nazarene unbelief almost killed Jesus (Mark 6:1-6; Luke 4: 16, 24-30).
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Yet from an indistinct village Jesus found a home among the ordinary, those whose lives did not matter to humanity at large. Insignificant by worldly standards, people feckless and unimportant were His neighbors.
However, when you focus on the fact God befriends those society finds marginal and worthless, outcasts on the scale of value, transformation is possible. Your view of others and yourself changes. Being average is no longer a pariah or a concern.
No one is trivial to God, no one is considered irrelevant or unimportant, or average. Take a close look at the Leper in the first century, contemptibly inadequate, who feared estrangement from his family and friends infinitely more than death. (See Matthew 8 and Mark 1. Leprosy — Hansen’s disease — destroys nerve endings leaving extremities, toes, fingers, noses, etc. vulnerable to serious injury. The sufferer feels no pain and hence goes through life prone to lose limbs). A leper’s life was one of severed relationships with family and friends. Banished, alienated, the leper was literally cut off from his normal interactions never again to enjoy them. Never again to feel the embrace of his spouse, the hugs of his children, and no contact with siblings, friends, or former associates, zero, nada, zilch, he had nothing except abandonment and soul-wrenching loneliness. Yet he was not beyond the notice of the Savior.
In Jesus’ day, whether Hansen’s disease, or psoriasis, or any other scaly skin condition, “leprosy” meant instant expulsion from family and community — instant. Scripture tells us Jesus approached the leper and touched him, and the Greek word is stronger than just touching, more like hugging. Think of that. To even touch a leper meant you not only shared his defilement but you shared his sin as well. Leprosy was widely believed a curse from God because of sin.2 Undeterred, Jesus hugs him, heals him, and restores him to his family and community.
I marvel at such tenderness. What is it in the Divine psyche that looks at fouled humanity in deplorable conditions and thinks only compassion? His emotional response is always ready to retrieve and redeem. I volunteer working for the homeless and I’m keenly aware I judge others effortlessly, noticing their filth and disarray while suppressing my revulsion. I tend to see their condition more than their person, so like me. In that sense, I too can be unfeeling and insensitive, like the leper’s disease. Yet God’s compassion sees through the veneer, the crusty foul-smelling exterior, and straight to my heart. He touches my unlovely self and reinstates me. I could have several lifetimes and still never mirror God’s compassion. The best I can do is a negligible shadowy effort. Nevertheless, I persist.
When feeling down, ordinary and insignificant, perhaps even alienated by depression, Jesus comes to me. And when I understand it is “God in the flesh,” I am humbled and more, I feel whole again focusing not on my lack-luster life, instead how welcomed I am in the heart of God. I belong, I am somebody, and I sit with Him on His throne, my sense of self restored. His touch lets me know who I am.
After my conversion in late adolescence I concluded God’s love was what I was searching for as a teen. To be included, wanted, and important was found in the arms of the Divine. From teenage self-centeredness to a new kind of wisdom where self-value is found in Jesus who appreciates my worth not because of what I have, or what I do, but who I am, down deep in my core.
Being ordinary or average might be my reality but so is my place in God’s heart. It gives me assurance I am never discarded, never ignored, and always welcomed and loved. It is what being redeemed feels like.
Notes & References:
1. Korb, Scott. Life In Year One: What the World was Like in First-century Palestine. Penguin Group, Canada, 2010, pp. 69-70.
2. Ibid. Pp. 116-118.
Greg Prout is father of three, grandfather of three, and has been happily married for 34 years to Mary Ventresca.
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