By Elly V. Darwin, M.Ed., NCC
Some of my writing comes about from coincidence. Some random event or thought occurs, or somebody makes a remark, and I think, “Hey, there’s an article.” Two occurrences set this article in motion.
First, I happened to have read a news article about a practice called “ICEing,” when drivers of large internal-combustion-engine (ICE) trucks park their trucks to deliberately block access to charging stations for electric vehicles at truck stops and gas stations. Not owning an electric vehicle, I was not aware of this, but according to the article, it’s all-too-commonly encountered by drivers of electric cars. Apparently, this is some sort of bullying tactic similar to “rolling coal” (deliberately exhausting thick black smoke) as a protest against electric vehicles. Why, I wondered, would somebody deliberately block access to a charging station, simply because they don’t like electric cars? It seems so childish.
Shortly after that, the second coincidence occurred. Having just said goodbye to houseguests, the dishwasher was full, and I needed to reach to the back of the cupboard to pull out a clean mug. The graphic on the mug I retrieved (purchased ages ago in a science museum giftshop) was by now almost completely worn off, but as soon as I grabbed it, it offered instant familiarity. One side of the mug used to have a pointillism-style image of Albert Einstein. On the other side, barely visible after all these years, was one of my favorite Einstein quotes: “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” About halfway through my coffee, I made the connection.
Blocking access to charging stations might not have been the kind of example Einstein would have referenced, and electric vehicle owners might not have fit his definition of great spirits, but it was enough of a correlation for me. It made me wonder: What sort of mindset would think it’s important enough to take it upon oneself to maneuver a big truck into a space that blocks access to a charging station? What sort of principle would this mindset be operating on? Internal combustion is better (therefore I’m better)? Electric-car drivers deserve to be inconvenienced (because they’re somehow not worthy of being allowed to charge up their cars)? Because I’ve determined I’m better, it’s my duty to put those lesser creatures in their place? Because? Because? Because?
This isn’t about electric or internal-combustion vehicles. This isn’t about environmental pollution or protection. And, to me, it isn’t about whatever political opinions may be at work. It’s about mindset. Having read the Einstein quote shortly after reading that news article, I simply could not stop thinking about mediocre minds and how they operate.
Mindset has nothing to do with intelligence. It’s about a way of thinking and perceiving. Some very sharp minds are mired in mediocre thoughts, and great spirits are found at every level of intellectual capacity. Mediocre minds, in the sense that Einstein intended, can be found across the spectrum of intelligence and occupations.
However you may define them, you undoubtedly know many. They’re everywhere! You shake your head or roll your eyes and wish they would change their attitudes—or at least would get out of your way. But who are these folks, really, and how do they differ from great spirits?
There are probably as many different gradations and ways of differentiating these mindsets as Einstein had brain cells. But for starters, I believe that great spirits always welcome growth. They embrace a challenge, they are open to differing viewpoints, and they’re not afraid to try something new or try a different way of approaching a problem or situation. Great spirits seem to have a pervasive sense of wonder about life and all that it contains. They find joy in things great and small: the thundering power of a waterfall or the silent delicacy of a butterfly. Great spirits are not tied to their egos. They aren’t afraid to admit they are wrong because they interpret that as a point of growth rather than a shortcoming. Great spirits have a way of transcending the mundane. They deal with what they must but are eager to get on with loftier pursuits. (Because of this, they are often accused of daydreaming or not paying attention.) Great spirits are emotionally well nourished.
Mediocre minds, on the other hand, think, believe, and behave small. Whether or not they realize it, they live in a rather constricted world. To me, the baseline of a mediocre mind tends to be fear: fear of the unknown or unfamiliar, fear of discomfort, fear of differences. They are not very willing to stretch their mental and emotional “comfort zone” to accommodate new ideas or different types of people. Mediocre minds tend to be more invested in being right (according to their own concept of that) and surrounding themselves with others who think the same way. Within these confines, they tend to worry about what others might think of them, which further inhibits their willingness to explore or step out of their self-imposed bounds. This sort of tribalism easily sets up an “us-versus-them” mindset and a “we-are-right-and-they-are-wrong” way of believing and behaving. Mediocre minds are emotionally hungry.
Macmillan Dictionary defines mediocre as average or below average in quality, ability, or achievement. When applied to a mindset, belief system, or way of thinking, the key element is quality. Notice that Macmillan’s definition includes ability but not capability. Deeply set clouded thinking may cost someone the ability to think and act on a higher plane of consciousness, much as alcoholism impairs the liver’s ability to function properly, but it doesn’t mean the capability was never there.
I believe everyone is innately a great spirit, but sadly, so many people never achieve that inborn potential. Instead, as Henry David Thoreau famously opined, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In their quiet state of emptiness or unhappiness, their potential suffers. They don’t realize that they were born great spirits because somehow, somewhere along the line, their spirit was smothered. And—also without realizing it—along the way they slipped into mediocrity. Mediocre minds emotionally underachieve. They settle for lower-quality thoughts, they find comfort in symbols of false strength and tribal viewpoints, their compassion suffers, their natural sense of curiosity is stifled, and they oppose (sometimes rudely or even violently) incompatible ideas and beliefs.
The late author and inspirational speaker Wayne Dyer often drew a correlation between internal thoughts and external actions. He used the simple analogy of an orange: “When you squeeze an orange, orange juice comes out because that is what’s inside.” Spontaneous expressions of love come out as joy and kindness because that’s what’s inside. Anger and aggression come out because there’s anger inside, especially when under pressure (feeling squeezed).
Let’s go back to the example of blocking the charging stations. Blocking out others comes out (as bullying behavior) because feeling blocked out (from love and kindness) is what’s inside. Take even coal-rolling: Deliberately spewing black, smelly, dirty smoke onto others looks to me like an outward expression of an internal mindset clouded with dark, stinky, polluted thoughts.
So, what can great spirits do about all these mediocre minds running amok? Unfortunately, pretty much nothing—at least as far as immediately changing their thinking and behavior goes. However misguided, or worse, you may deem them to be, they have a right to their thoughts and actions (short of breaking the law). Furthermore, people stuck in mediocre mindsets rarely desire to elevate themselves because they don’t realize where they are. They don’t see that they are great spirits, potentially full of love and kindness, who are trapped in a mental prison of disdain, fear, low self-esteem, and low-quality thinking.
You can’t necessarily “fix” them—that’s a growth process they must take on themselves—but you can use them as valuable anti-role models. You can vow neither to judge them from a position of superiority (a mediocre mindset trait itself) nor to become like them in turn. Instead, you can ask yourself, “Do I want to be like that? Do I want to pass judgment on others, even to the extent that I feel I must make them miserable in order to make myself appear better? Do I want to be hurtful and unkind? Do I want to dwell in a low-quality mindset? Do I want to compromise my highest potential in favor of mediocrity?”
Let’s say, for example, the driver of an electric car decides to get even by letting the air out of the big truck’s tires. What do we have? Two mediocre minds spewing contempt and accomplishing nothing positive. Obviously, sometimes recourse is called for. Laws and rules need to be implemented, policing needs to take place, bullies need to be held accountable. I’m not arguing that. But there are ways to address (or let go of) issues from a higher plane without lowering your own common denominator to equal others’ mediocrity.
One day in my first year as a teacher, I opened the door to the faculty room just as one teacher blew up at another. “That’s it!” she shouted, “And furthermore, I’m not sending my kids down to help out your kids anymore!” And she stormed out of the room. It was a shattering moment for this idealistic new teacher who assumed that all teachers would put the kids ahead of their personal feelings toward other faculty members. I didn’t know what the argument was about; I only know how it ended. And I thought it terribly sad that somebody’s students would be deprived of further opportunities to learn from slightly older kids, all because their teachers didn’t get along.
Years ago I saw a bumper sticker that said, “I don’t get mad, I get even.” Again, an illustration of mindset, not one I’d particularly want to brag about on my car.
Do you feel the need to get even whenever you’ve been slighted? Are your thoughts consumed with harm or revenge? How do you spend your time? What pursuits are most important to you? In light of those questions, here’s a more important one: What kind of mindset are you deliberately or unwittingly instilling in your children? Children absorb so much by observation. Whether you realize it or not, attitudes and values are learned right along with tying shoes and brushing teeth. They observe what they observe, and they often copy what they observe. If they observe you lying, it won’t matter very much that you’ve “taught” them not to lie.
When I was little, I would plead my case to my mother that I hit someone because they hit me first, or they said something first. She would agree with me that that was indeed poor behavior on their part (and would address it if it involved a sibling). But she would also admonish me to “be bigger” than that. If someone else “started it,” her response to me was, “then you be the one to end it” (by walking away or some other deescalating tactic). It was hard for me to appreciate that as a youngster, when I so desperately wanted to seek revenge on a more visceral level. But I see now that, whether or not she intended it as such back then, she was speaking to a higher spirit within me and trying to teach me to rise above mediocrity. Have I followed her teachings in every situation throughout my life? Not always! I’m human and I’m still working on myself. But I’m grateful that she tried her best to instill the notion that there are loftier options than low-level tit for tat.
A friend of mine once remarked, “It’s amazing when you consider how far below average the average guy is.” He meant it as sort of a joke, but I took it as a cautionary tale. Everyone has the potential to be a great spirit, and yet so few chose to rise above mediocrity. We may not be the greatest spirits in the sense that Einstein meant, but we can refuse to settle for below average.
Elly Darwin, M.Ed., NCC holds a master’s degree in counselor education and is a retired educator. She owns Clearheart Communications, LLC, and operates the website, ClearheartCommunity.com.
IMAGES: Truck: Chris F., Pixels / Albert Einstein: Eugenio Hansenofs, Pixabay / Orange: Charlotte May, Pixels / Author: WestRidge Photography
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