The world can be divided into two basic types of people: those who, when overwhelmed by sufficient levels of desperation, internalise their feelings and commit suicide, and those who externalise those feelings and resort instead to homicide. My experience of a presentation I recently attended has left me relatively certain that I fall into the latter category. Had things gone on too much longer, there may well have been bloodshed.
I won’t bore you with too many of the details of it (trust me, this is an act of profound mercy on my part – you will never know how closely you flirted with brain-death just by reading this). But I do want to talk about one of the issues that was raised. One of my key objections to the content of the presentation was the repetition of the truism that “if you can believe it, you can achieve it”. It was supported by evidence of neurotransmitters being affected by negative self-talk. And while this is true – I, myself, overcame major clinical depression by consciously, over a long period of time, modifying my self-talk – the science has been misapplied. Just because the brain might prevent one from achieving something if there is a reinforced belief that it is not possible, it does not follow that a reinforced belief that anything is possible will make anything achievable.
The reason is this: belief is not the only factor that determines whether or not somebody succeeds. Natural ability, for example, will also play a significant part. No amount of self-belief can compensate for a lack of natural ability. I have seen countless contestants on Idols, who genuinely believed that they were God’s gift to popular culture, walk away dumbfounded and perplexed when the judges failed to recognise what seemed to them to be an obvious talent. So while there are certainly areas of life where self-belief and success go hand in hand, it is not a principle that can be applied in every scenario.
To further explain her point, our speaker used examples of what she called “super-achievers”, to try to understand what separates them from “underachievers” (don’t get me started on the problems with these labels…). Her examples included Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates and Mother Teresa. By analysing the key positive attributes of such “super-achievers”, she was trying to demonstrate that we could all be “super achievers” if we simply changed our attitudes. If only it were that simple. While I do not deny that attitude is pivotal, a host of other factors were at play in the lives of the “super-achievers”. Natural abilities and personality traits, certain socio-political circumstances – any number of factors outside of their control – helped these people rise to the positions they did.
In statistical terms, these people are outliers. For a variety of reasons, they fall outside of the normal distribution. To use a statistical outlier to understand “normal” experience is therefore illogical. I work in education, so I will use an example from that sphere. A child who achieves 100% in a national assessment is a statistical outlier. If I were to document such a child’s study habits, I am sure that I would discover that she had sound note-taking skills, good time-management skills, was disciplined, had definite goals and a determined attitude, among other things. But those would not be what set her apart from the rest. Many, if not all of those attributes would be present in many of the “underachievers” too. Our “super-achiever” would also have a level of natural intelligence that dwarfed those within the normal range. To suggest that by emulating her habits any child could achieve 100% would be to utterly negate the advantage that her natural ability gives her over others. Emulating her habits would certainly improve the academic performance of those in the normal range, but she is an anomaly. Not everybody can be like her, even if they believe they can.
We do the same thing in the church, by the way. All of the Biblical heroes are statistical outliers. The common experience of humans’ interaction with God is not to be found in studying Moses, or Isaiah, or Daniel, or Peter or Paul. All of these people had encounters with God that were extraordinary. The overwhelming majority of the faithful (because it would be enormously problematic and completely contrary to Scripture to suggest that only these heroes were faithful) lived ordinary lives of “no” discernible consequence. I use the inverted commas because I am sure that within their own families and communities they did make an impact. But we make a grave mistake when we conclude that because God worked through these anomalous few in a certain way, that he habitually works that way. If we can conclude anything about God’s habitual interaction with the faithful it is that there is no direct interaction: He never speaks to them, visits them in dreams, miraculously intervenes in their lives. For the vast majority of His faithful followers, whose stories are at best footnotes in the Biblical narrative, God is silent. Only a very few anomalous cases – our Biblical heroes – for reasons God alone knows (and I don’t say that blasphemously ; I absolutely trust His judgement) – receive the benefit of direct revelation. But they are exceptions. We cannot conclude that it is our “heritage” to receive prophecies or perform miracles. Go back and read the book of Acts again. Outside of the Apostles, how many people are recorded performing miraculous healings or driving out demons (Acts 2:43; 5:12-16)? Possibly Phillip (Acts 8), otherwise none. Yet the church was growing daily. Instead, the faithfulness of the “ordinary” Christian in the early church manifested itself in devotion to acts of social justice (Acts 2: 44-47; 4: 32-35) and to meeting regularly together for prayer and fellowship. Maybe that is where we should focus.
The reason I hate this habit of using statistical outliers to define normal experience is the implication that normal is inadequate. On the back of these examples, we have raised a generation of people who believe that unless they “make their mark”, they have somehow failed in life. And because ordinary people can never become outliers, for reasons completely outside of their control, we are promoting a society of people who can only ever feel inadequate. As far as the church is concerned, the consequences are a religion that focuses on elevating the self, emphasising the value of being able to do “miraculous” things or being exceptionally virtuous to prove faithfulness, rather than of finding one’s life through losing it (Matthew 16:25).
I don’t know when ordinariness became socially unacceptable, but maybe it is time to reverse the trend. Maybe it is time we found the courage to say, “I do not need to be exceptionally intelligent; I do not need to be exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally wealthy, exceptionally talented, exceptionally good. I do not need to be remembered. I do not need to change the world. Because when I accept that I am ordinary, and that this in no way diminishes me, then I can rid myself of the complex psychological compulsions, fuelled by my feelings of inadequacy, which drive my behaviour, and free myself for God to use me in meaningful – if more mundane – ways.