One of the most spiritually meaningful journeys of my life involved the quest for a desperately needed cup of coffee.
My wife and I were in Italy to attend a friend’s wedding, and because neither of us paid particular attention to small and insignificant details like itineraries or hotel checkout times, we found ourselves compelled to embark on an all-night drive from the heel of the boot all the way north to leafy Tuscany. At some point—it was 2 a.m. or maybe 4, it could have been just outside Rome or maybe past Naples—I felt I needed a shot of espresso, or else. We drove for ten miles, then twenty, then thirty more in search of the elusive elixir. We got on and off the highway. We took long detours in small towns, at one point contemplating knocking on the first door we saw and offering whoever answered a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill for two minutes alone with their macchiato machine.
Finally, we found a small roadside restaurant that was open, ordered two espressos, and drank with abandon. Had one of Raphael’s dreamy-eyed angels been the barista, we wouldn’t have been surprised: The brew was an ounce and a half of heaven.
For the rest of the drive, I could think of nothing but that espresso. Why, I fumed, could I not get such a transcendent shot stateside? I was ranting to my wife, who was trying her best to nap, that back home we’d be lucky to settle for a flavorless latte at Starbucks. “Yeah,” she quipped, half asleep, “but there’ll be one open and available every six miles.”
And then it hit me: America isn’t really a land of meritocracy. It is a mediocracy, a nation dedicated to the mass production of reasonably acceptable and always accessible goods, services, people, and ideas. And it is precisely this middling quality that makes us both great and good. Other cultures shine their lights on a handful of rare and precious jewels while everything and everyone else is plunged in darkness. But it’s always morning in America, because we realize it is better to forget about the perfect and settle for the fairly good, easily reproduced, and not too expensive stuff.
Our mediocrity isn’t just the backbone of our economy, allowing leviathans like McDonald’s to flourish by promising the same unremarkable bite today in Akron you enjoyed last Tuesday in Denver. It’s also the organizing principle of our unique brand of morality, an American ethos that rewards sincere (or even just vigorous) effort, not excellence. To understand this mentality better, it helps to travel to 1796, to a small town in the Vitebsk region of Imperial Russia called Liadi.
It was then and there that Shneur Zalman, a learned rabbi, published a book called the Tanya. It was named after its first word, which is Hebrew for “it has been taught,” and was meant to be a guide to leading a richer, more meaningful spiritual life. Its first and best-known part comes with a peculiar subtitle: sefer shel beinonim, “book of the intermediates,” or “a book for average men.”
Its author was anything but average: By the time he was eight, Zalman already composed a comprehensive commentary on the Hebrew Bible. Shortly after his twelfth birthday, his teacher informed his parents that the boy no longer needed formal instruction, because the young genius was perfectly capable of mastering whatever discipline he chose on his own. In addition to the Torah, Shneur Zalman possessed a deep knowledge of math, geometry, science, and a host of other secular disciplines. Given this intellectual prowess, when he grew up and became a great Hasidic master and teacher, he naturally gravitated toward a less emotional, more rationalistic form of worshipping the Almighty.
But how should one approach the intricate task of rendering unto God that which he is due? How, in other words, should one go about the business of being religious? This, to a Hasidic rabbi, was akin to asking how one ought to live. Shneur Zalman’s answer was simple, yet intensely profound, and especially resonant with modern Americans like us, who are often self-designated world-beaters: Just remember that you’re mediocre.
Very few people, he wrote in the first page of his astonishing book, possess a genius for religion and are capable of great and soulful feats of inspiration. Thankfully, that also means that very few people are truly wicked. The vast majority, which means you and I, are right in the middle. If we aspire to be like the handful of rare, pious saints, Shneur Zalman warned us, we’ll fail miserably. If we simply try to be the best versions of our not so magnificent, not so talented selves, we’ll flourish. The mediocre man is the most moral man, not because he climbs to the greatest objectively measurable heights, but because he pushes himself as hard as he can possibly go. Effort, Zalman teaches, is all.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Hasidic dynasty Shneur Zalman founded, Chabad Lubavitch, has thrived since reaching American soil. The Tanya may be written in the thick and beautiful language of a great Eastern European Jewish sage, but its radical ideas make it every bit as profoundly American a book as, say, Poor Richard’s Almanack. Examine the advertising slogans that have inspired us these past six decades—the closest thing we have in this country to a truly shared gospel—and you’ll see the impact of this blessed cult of mediocrity. The army, after all, hasn’t been recruiting us to its ranks by urging us to be the best; it simply urges us to be all we can be.
Would a nation that believed otherwise have its own native and thriving genre of literature, the self-help book? Or a multi-billion-dollar home fitness industry? Or a torrent of kitchen gadgets that promises to help you cook like a master? Or cosmetics to make everyone look her best? It’s Zalman translated into the secular sphere. Every journey to self-improvement, after all, must begin with an admission that there’s much to improve, and the recognition that the boundaries of our improvement are no greater than those of the self.
Good luck explaining that to any nation of people toiling in the rotting soil worked over for centuries by royal dynasties. The aristocratic tradition sneers at our American spirit because it urges the opposite approach, arguing that it’s better to exalt the few and the well-groomed, allowing them to set timeless and unsurpassable standards that only they meet, than to permit the many, the sloppy, and the happy to make something of themselves on their own, mediocre terms. In other words, better to ornament society with the great few than to make society as a whole a little better through the best efforts of the always average, often dull many.
The aristocratic attitude may be useful in forging a society in which everyone looks upward and waits for the great and the good to take initiative, a rigid structure based on hierarchies and unbendable rules. But the latter is far better if what you want is a community, a cluster of people who care about each other and promise each other—and God—nothing but their utmost. That so-so cup of truck-stop coffee is surely the perfect metaphor for life in America. It’s very far from impeccable. In truth, it’s often fairly bad. But it’s always there for you, whenever and wherever you need it. Flying J, here I come!
It’s not coincidental that the people who challenge this spirit of efficient, reliable mediocrity—our self-appointed intellectual and moral betters who inform us, from their perches in Ivy League schools or mainstream media newsrooms or corporate corner offices, that they’re the experts and therefore we need to wait for them to tell us what to think and do—also seem to dislike the very idea of America. These conceited meritocrats are being inconsistent. For we live in a land where, as William F. Buckley so memorably put it, we’d rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston phone book than by Harvard’s esteemed faculty.
We’re sublimely average people, we Americans. We know that what makes us great cannot be measured by any facile metric, like how much money we have in the bank, how high we scored on our SATs, or what awards we’ve won. What makes us great is that so many of us try. Yes, we merrily fail, and then learn how to fail again in better and more interesting ways. But we’re not a country that is pulled ahead by the talented few. We’re a country that pulls together. “This land is your land; this land is my land,” sang Woody Guthrie. That’s a miracle only perfectly mediocre people could ever pull off.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.
Image by An Errant Knight via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
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