Exceptional Isn’t For Everyone: An Ode To The Ordinary

by Cassie

ex·cep·tion·al  (ĭk-sĕp′shə-nəl)adj.

1. Being an exception; uncommon.
2. Well above average; extraordinary: an exceptional memory.
3. Deviating widely from a norm, as of physical or mental ability.–

We are all special. We all, simply by virtue of emerging from our mother’s womb and choking down our first full breath’s worth of sweet open air, have something going for us, have a life worth living, have a story to tell. And there’s inevitably something special to be found within that story, because all stories have magic, and because our stories are ourselves, we are also magic; we are Merlin, we are Circe, we are Elphaba, we are Gandalf and Bellatrix and Serafina Pekkala, our bodies are cauldrons and our words are waving wands. We are special. We are magic.

But we aren’t all exceptional.

We are capable of exceptional acts: we can be exceptionally kind or exceptionally giving, exceptionally arrogant or exceptionally cunning. We may have areas in which we are exceptional: we may play the piano exceptionally well or be an exceptionally talented artist, we might have an exceptional eye for detail or be exceptionally persuasive at arguing a point.

But very few among us are truly exceptional, and that’s exactly the way it should be. It’s why “exceptional” exists — it is a way to set apart from us those who are uncommon, those who are extraordinary. It is a word for the Shakespeares, and the Einsteins, and the Thomas Edisons. It is a word for the poets whose stanzas still sing to us across the centuries, a word for warriors who claimed countries through bloody fists and hardened hearts, a word for heroes standing before slain dragons, a word for the life-riskers and life-givers and life-extenders. It is a word for those who shout from mountaintops, loud enough and long enough so that those of us in the valley can hear and hang on to every syllable. It is a word that should wear a “reservation only” sign around its neck.

But this is not an ode to exceptionalism. This is a love song to the ordinary.

Most of us live out our lives in the most ordinary of ways: we are born, we grow up, maybe we fall in love, maybe we have children, we raise them, we find something we’re good at if we’re lucky and we do that until we no longer can or no longer need to, we surround ourselves with friends and family and all the people who make us feel good about ourselves, and one day we die. It’s been the order of things since before we even realized things had order. And it’s a good order. Centuries of us, living small lives in small ways, but it’s smallness only when seen from the outside; on the inside, along the seams where we’re joined together in goodness and warmth and tears and tragedies, our lives are enormous, as big as the world. On the inside, we hold oceans in our hands as we birth our babies. We exhale entire desert floors around a loved one’s last breath. We have whole rivers run hot inside our veins in the moment a stranger’s touch becomes desperately familiar. On the inside, in the smallness, we are giants.

Sometimes, it takes courage to be content; sometimes, there is a quiet daring in accepting a limited legacy. There’s nothing mediocre in making the best of what you have, in taking the life you’ve made for yourself and pulling it in around your shoulders, mismatched, tattered at the edges, thin in the places you love the best, but as soft as new skin under the moonlight, as warm as the sun falling on your face on the first day after school lets out for summer. We’ve grown up with “do better, be better, be bigger, do something, be somebody” pressed into our flesh, an inky undercurrent of insecurity, a firm hand in our back that nauseates and complicates and pushes us into people and places we don’t want to be; but shedding that skin and finding wings underneath comes with a giddy joy that trembles in your thighs, knowing you can fly but standing still, craving ten thousand feet of wind sometimes but knowing the air is sweeter where you already are. There are those who scale mountains, and there are those who build mountains from little moments: sleepy caresses on the shore of quiet and unassuming love, the seashell ear and miniature pearl nails of a newborn hearing her mother’s heart from the outside for the first time, perfectly timed inappropriate laughter like the sudden flutter of a candle flame in a night with no moon, elephant hide hands with crooked knuckles smoothing silvered hair back from a cooling brow. The summit is in the smallest detail.

We all need our heroes and villains, our lonely pioneers and madman visionaries. Our mixed up mythologies inspire and condemn, are guiding stars and nosediving bombers, exploding on impact. We need flaming comets among us, burning so bright we can barely stand to look at them as they make their way around suns we can’t even see; but we also need clay feet and Adam’s rib and Eve’s apple and everything about us that makes us beautifully, stupidly, gloriously human. We need fig leaves so we understand how brilliant we shine underneath them. We need exile to show us that a home built around an open mind and open heart is always the home worth having. We need ashes in our hair and dust under our fingernails and those whose stories will only ever be heard around a fire. We need those whose only poem is the lines of her body, the cello curves singing under the bow of a gentle hand. We need those whose only masterpiece is the child with his nose, a delicate jumble of bones and flesh thrown together in a way that makes him better. We need the remarkable: we need the ordinary.

You are probably not exceptional, but you are almost definitely ordinary. Never let that be a bad thing — be a giant in the smallness. Be a mountain maker. Eat your apple to the core and kiss the snake when you’re finished. Tell your story around a fire built up from the bones of your life; tell it true, and be the kind of ordinary magic that dances over darkening embers, stirring up sparks, a whispering phoenix that only rises when you’re dreaming. Exceptional or ordinary, we burn the same.

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