In praise of ordinary people

I still remember that fateful evening eons ago when my father opened my first report card, for my first semester in first grade at Sunnyside School in Shelton. His eyes glanced over the grades and focused on the “C” I got in some course or other. Was it art? Was it arithmetic? Was it the alphabet? I don’t remember, and I don’t want to remember because it was a dark day in my young academic life.

He didn’t respond the way modern parents typically do, with positive reinforcement, constructive criticism or encouragement. Decades later, I recall his exact words: “We don’t get Cs in this house.” Oops. Who knew? I didn’t get the memo.

That was what you might call the first day of the rest of my life. From then on, I lived in constant fear of going home with a C or worse. From then on, my father would analyze the ups and downs of my grades as if my report card were the quarterly earnings statement of his retirement portfolio.

In my defense, I never went to kindergarten and had to learn numbers and the alphabet in the first grade, so the rest of the class was already way ahead of me. From that moment, I never got another C, although I came darn close, and if it weren’t for a few sympathetic teachers, I would have incurred the wrath of my father.

There was Mrs. McGrath at Sunnyside School, who taught grammar, which for the life of me I couldn’t understand. I probably should have failed the final, but she had mercy on me. The irony is that years later, I taught English grammar and composition.

Brother Thellen, my Latin teacher at St. Joseph High School, showed mercy too and let me squeak by with a B when I was sure I deserved a C+. I won’t even mention calculus.

It’s sad how that frightening encounter with my father left an indelible impression on me. In addition to the anxiety, I always felt inadequate and never could do well enough.

You were expected to be at the top of the class. You had to excel on standardized tests, you had to get into a good college, you had to have a great GPA and you had to be an honors student. Later in life, you had to get the promotion, earn the bonus and stand out from the crowd.

This kind of behavior only reenforced what Thomas Merton called the “false self.”

“Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self,” he said. “This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him.”

So much striving to excel. That sort of thinking can haunt you, especially when you believe God responds the same way. I was convinced God was like my father and didn’t accept Cs either. It had to be high honors on your spiritual report card if you wanted to get accepted into heaven.

But if God operated that way, the people with the longest obituaries in the New York Times would be the ones sitting in the place of honor at the heavenly banquet. How unfair would that be?

The good news is Jesus’ performance reviews are nothing like the reviews you’d get at Goldman Sachs. He doesn’t punish or penalize you if you’re not perfect.

There’s a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous that goes: “We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection,” which is a wonderful attitude to have.

Jesus doesn’t expect us to be perfect, because when we start thinking of ourselves as perfect— and act as if we’re perfect—we’re moving further from him.

He just wants us to keep trying to do better every day and asking him for help, which he’ll certainly give. With Jesus, it’s OK to be ordinary. He’ll judge us by how much we love, not by how much we know.

St. Francis de Sales said it best with words worth remembering: “Have patience with all things but first with yourself. Never confuse your mistakes with your value as a human being. You are a perfectly valuable, creative, worthwhile person simply because you exist. And no amount of triumphs or tribulations can ever change that.”

So Dad, wherever you are— and I hope it’s the good place—I guess you’ve learned by now that Jesus doesn’t mind Cs. With him, it doesn’t hurt to be an average person because he takes you where you are on your spiritual journey and helps you move forward.