My mother never misses an opportunity to point out the differences between our generation and theirs, particularly those that glare offensively, rebelliously. We think it permissible to sleep at 4 am and wake up at 4 pm that same day. To them, it is just another confirmation that we are messed up in some way, for a virtuous person rises with the sun, except if they are a bit older and have already paid their dues. Then they can have the luxury of waking up at the late, late hour of 8 am. Of course the night was made for sleeping; only thieves and wild dogs are awake and active past midnight. We drag ourselves to school, and we vow that our children— in the spirit of ensuring that ones progeny experiences a better life than one did—will not know the misery that is life in a Kenyan system boarding school. They, on the other hand, recall enjoying boarding school, and the pleasures it afforded them: pocket money, and not having to balance school work with cow-herding and maize-harvesting. Small differences, some large, and she relishes those conversations, as though somehow, they allow her to understand us better.
Consistently, we bring up that aged argument; that it was a different time, and that comparing how they grew up and how we have is neither fair nor does it have a point. It was different, as it will be when we have our own kids. Life for my parents was simpler, slower, steadier. There was a goal, it was known, and daily, efforts were made to reach the goal. A Better Life. Psychologists say that when you have more options, when you have the luxury of choice, you are more likely to take longer to decide, and when you do decide, you are more likely to regret your decision. My parents didn’t have options. There weren’t many paths available to said better life. They chose, they worked, they prayed. That was all. The rest were side shows.
And then there’s us. With our ambitious dreams, our never-ending quest for identity and belonging, our need to be great, to make a difference. We were told we could do anything and we believed it. We have had the world in our homes, in our pockets. All around us it gets bigger and bigger the more accessible it is to us. It is not enough anymore to want a home, a family, a job. It is not enough to be ‘just okay’. We do not do well with adjectives that speak neutrality. We want more, more, more. We want to conquer. We call ourselves kings and queens. We look up to people who have achieved recognition for the various ways in which they have created change. Changemakers. Everybody wants to be a changemaker. If we were not born great, and we did not have greatness thrust upon us, then by God, we will achieve greatness. If not…Mediocrity.
Our greatest fear, it seems. Average. Mediocre. Normal. Everybody is on social media claiming a level of craziness, weirdness, all of us in pursuit of difference. To be ‘not like the others’. To be special. Which is not even the fault, really. There is no harm in wanting to be unique; after all, we all got pushed into our systems the motivational talk about everybody having a unique fingerprint. It is true, and it is fine. But here we are, wanting only big things, wanting only things that will earn us recognition, wanting only for the world to validate our individuality.
Once, a friend, his name is Mike, told me that he has a problem with my generation. I was saying that I wanted to find a job, something that will give me a push, a bit of experience, maybe a bit of cash. Mike turned to me and said that our demographic (early twenties, still in college) was moving too fast, trying to outrun the world. Of course I got upset and shut down, leaving that conversation unfinished. How dare he? Does he not know how much pressure is on us? Pressure to gain experience and skills so that we can find even part-time internships. Pressure to bring to the table more than our degrees, more than our personalities, more than our energy. Pressure to keep up with a world in which teenagers were earning more than we ever would. Pressure to maintain appearances, to know the right people, to be seen in the right places, and always, always be smiling. Did he not know? Of course we were struggling to keep up.
Much later, I am willing to see Mike’s point. Everybody else (generations before ours) was able to take life a day at a time. For everybody else, it was enough to have a small dream, and to work constantly towards that dream. Everybody else seemed to understand that greatness was not meant for everybody; that the important thing was to create change in your world, not in the world. Which is why they said to one another, ‘Brighten the corner where you are’. For us, it somehow not enough. There are no corners in our world. We must light up the whole place even if it means setting ourselves on fire.
My mother, in my opinion, has made a reality of her small dream. She—they— didn’t try to outrun the world. They didn’t feel the need to. Proving their greatness, their specialness, was not prioritized. They just worked at getting to A Better Life. A day at a time. Allowing each stage to come, to grow them, and to go. I assume that they didn’t feel Left Behind as much as we do. At 22, my mother was enjoying college, being young, being curious, being in the city, away from her parents, on her own, discovering. At 22, I am stressing over my future, over my identity, over my specialness. I am worrying that my peers are achieving so much more than I am. I am worrying that soon I will be 30 and will have nothing to show for it. I am worrying that I will not achieve the greatness that we have decided is our birthright. I am worrying that Average will catch me and parade me as its prize, and that that is the worst thing that could happen to me.
The truth is, if everybody is unique then uniqueness becomes average. There is nothing special about being unique. There is enough space in this world for everybody’s dreams, but only if our dreams are not competing. Imali tells me that she has come to a point in her life where she is embracing her mediocrity. It sounds painful to hear the first time but honestly, I see her point. She has slowed down, she is allowing life to happen. It is not to mean that she is just lying there doing nothing, making nothing of herself. Just that she is no longer struggling to keep up, no longer feeling the need to yield to the pressure to be great and to be great right now. She has realized that dreaming small is not quite as bad as we made it out to be. What Mike was trying to tell me that day was that because we see a few people becoming millionaires at 24, we think that our twenties are the time when we are supposed to ‘make it’, when really, we have only just begun. We need to calm down, to slow down. I figure that if I can stop trying to outrun the world, and if I can start looking for the small dreams, then I can spend my twenties like my mother did: Simply, slowly, steadily building A Better Life.