People fear being average. What’s more terrifying than knowing you are inconsequential, having zero impact on the world and leaving no mark at all? If you pass, no one remembers you, everyone moves on. It is as though nothing matters, you can do whatever you want and no one would notice, and no one would care.
But is that really what you want from life? The admiration and loyalty of hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of people that you don’t even know?
Or the bigger question that leads this entire fear to begin with: what is wrong with being normal?
I don’t think it’s many little girls’ dream to be a receptionist.Pam Beesly, The Office
When asked to think of someone who is normal, so painfully average, many may be reminded of Pam Beesly from The Office, the lovable and very average receptionist (then saleswoman, and later office administrator) at Dunder Mifflin, Scranton branch.
Pam is, for the majority of the series, shy, honest, down-to-earth, and plain. She doesn’t start growing more confident until Jim, her love interest, transfers to another branch. She calls off her wedding, something that she had been waiting years for. She does a coal walk, something that not even her boss Michael could do. She pursues her artistic side, something that she had always been discouraged from doing.
But throughout her character journey, she had been, and really, remains to be, normal.
She has lived a remarkably average life; experienced things that many people have experienced, gone through things that many people have gone through. She worked a nine-to-five at a big company, she was in a relationship with a childhood sweetheart for years, she got married and had kids. Those are remarkably, extraordinarily, normal things to do.
In fact, she even acknowledges this in the later seasons of the show. She mentions that, now that they have a second kid, nothing interesting is going to happen to them for a long time. It seems as though she has come to terms with it, and wants to live a normal, average, American life.
And yet, despite being unremarkable and ordinary, many seem to worship the relationship Jim and Pam have. Many seem to adore and admire the lives they live. So, what’s to fear about being normal when the supposed underdog you’re rooting for on screen remains the underdog at the end?
In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013 film), Walter Mitty is an absentminded man. He is so plain, so unremarkable, and so normal, that one character pictured him as a gray piece of paper. A lot of things paint Walter as a normal, average man. He works at a nine-to-five in a massive company. He wears nothing but a suit-and-tie for the majority of the film. all in plain colors. He had an active life as a child, but nothing came of it. There were promises and tales of traveling abroad, but they were scrapped. He worked as a delivery boy for fast food places. He is a manager of a seemingly two-person department. His job is, to say the least, boring. Hell, no one even knows it’s his birthday when the film begins.
Contrasting Walter’s life is his sister, Odessa, who actively pursues things she wants to do. She has a packed schedule, she wears bright colors, she knows what she wants. She seems to have everything figured out. She auditions for a role in Grease and she gets it. Contrary to Walter, where he loses his job as LIFE transitions to a purely online presence.
There’s no one in Walter’s life other than his family. His only friends seem to be his understudy and coworker Hernando and the elusive photographer Sean O’Connell, whom Walter had never met in person. He is so lonely that he fantasizes a lot about a co-worker he has a crush on, despite never even initiating conversation with her. In fact, Walter seems to have a chronic daydreaming issue. Perhaps this is a side effect of being so normal, of having a life so average that it’s boring. The mind wanders and he zones out so often that the people around him often comments on it.
There isn’t anything wrong with daydreaming, or fantasizing about things. Many people do that, either out of boredom or curiosity, or as a form of escape. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with retreating into a place in your head where you’re more comfortable, to escape the hectic every day life, to want something better.
But is it really what you need?
In the mid-point of the film, Walter goes out of his comfort zone and takes matters into his own hands. He goes to Greenland, fights a shark, goes to Iceland, runs from a volcano eruption, then he goes to Afghanistan, where he scales a mountain. There, he finally meets Sean.
Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.Sean O’Connell, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Sean says that the photograph he recommends to be the cover of the last issue of LIFE is the quintessence. The quintessence, the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form, of LIFE. It was, as Sean said, a thing of beauty.
Later, at the end of the film, we discover that the quintessence of LIFE is Walter, sitting outside the Time and Life building examining photos and a contact sheet. Doing his job.
Throughout the entire journey, although Walter goes on such a wild adventure, it feels as though he hasn’t really changed. He’s still an average guy. He’s still normal. Sure, he’s got a few life experiences under his belt, but he’s back in New York and he’s looking for a new job. He daydreams less, but he doesn’t continue his adventurous lifestyle, the one that he fantasizes a lot about.
Because, well, life is beautiful as it is. Besides, he’s got what he wanted, what he’s been dreaming of, in the end. It’s the realization that, despite being average, there’s still a lot to admire about the life you have. Everything can go so fast. Just stop and take in the moment. There’s a lot of beauty around us. There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things.
I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish and says, “I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.” “The ocean?” says the older fish, “That’s what you’re in right now.” “This?” says the younger fish, “This is water. What I want is the ocean.”Dorothea Williams, Soul
For Pam, she was happy. She has a loving husband and kids. They have stable careers and a house in a lovely neighborhood. Despite being normal, Pam has everything she ever wanted. That was enough for her. Being average doesn’t matter when you’re content. When that happens, nothing else matters and everything becomes wonderful.
And that, is what it means to be average.
It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power.Raymond Carver
Categories: a piece of my mind