A short article by the editor of The Week magazine, Caroline Law, took my notice this weekend. It went like this:
“Last week, Amber Rudd was everywhere. Now she has gone and all eyes have turned to her successor. It is no secret how political lives end, so why does anyone go into politics? Perhaps they are so passionately committed to setting the world to rights that they feel they can do no other – but we don’t usually credit our politicians with such pure motives. Perhaps they are thick-skinned, and don’t fear failure. Or maybe they think they’re a bit special, and that they won’t fail.
In fact, it is remarkably usual for people to think they’re unusual. Children are told they are special, and according to a poll published in April, even in their 20s, only 58% of people reckon themselves to be ordinary. The youthful sense of being special – and a corresponding need to be recognised as such – could explain all sorts of regrettable behaviour (and not just in the young). But most of us have it battered out of us: by the time we are in our 70s, it seems only 5% of us still think we are not ordinary. That may explain why older people tend to report higher levels of contentment: the way they view themselves, and the way the world views them, has finally reached a comfortable alignment. But we should be grateful that some people cling to their exceptionalism. If we all realise straightaway that we are not unusually clever, or charismatic – that we are special only to our friends, and that’s okay – who would start a high risk business, or take a shot at life in politics? We need the special ones even if, in the end, they prove to be not special enough.”
The very word ‘ordinary’ gets such contradictory press. The word itself comes from the Latin ordo, ordinis which means rank or file or column and is often, but not exclusively, used in a military context – at its core, therefore, being ordinary means to join this column, and not to step out of the line, to be part of a procession, to march in line. There is little scope for stepping out from the crowd.
We see all too often throwaway comments in the press about ‘ordinary hard-working people’ – a term coined by politicians and, as it happens, one of my least favourite phrases anywhere in the world, partly, I suspect, because it seems to exclude me personally and indeed the parents of many in this room. This phrase ‘ordinary hard-working people’ is often preceded in the press by the word ‘decent’ or even the world ‘real’, so not only are certain people, usually defined as those above a certain income bracket, excluded from being ordinary, but the implication is that they cannot be decent, real or hard-working either. Politicians seem delightfully unaware of the irony that they themselves are not included in their own expectation of what a ‘decent ordinary hard-working person’ looks like. Bizarrely, the word ordinary is becoming an exclusive term rather than an inclusive one.
So do we want to be ordinary or extraordinary? Most human beings, it seems to me, have a genuine personal tussle with this. It is a pretty universal human condition, I believe, to want to be accepted, liked, part of a group of friends; and this condition is never more pronounced than when you are growing up. When we settle into a school, most people try hard to be whatever ordinary might be for that school; to fit in; to conform. And yet, we are also often trying constantly to be extraordinary at the same time: people want to be the best, to do great things, look up to those who have invented something, or played for England, or starred in a feature film; or indeed, as Caroline Law wrote, start a business or become a politician. Many of you will do these things in the future. You will become leaders in your field. To do so, you will need a lot of courage in order to stick your neck out from the crowd, to take a lead, to leave the ordo, the rank, the column. But you will also need to retain your ordinariness, and for that you will need great humility. You cannot lead without any followers; and you cannot appeal without common ground.
So it seems to me that you can do both, no matter what your background – be ordinary and extraordinary – if you have courage and humility. And indeed, as this is the last Monday Assembly for this year’s A-Level boys, I encourage you to be just that – ordinary and extraordinary – as you set out from Bedford at the end of this term. There are plenty of examples of people who have combined these two wonderful attributes, but it is impossible in my own mind not to leap directly to the Christian message here that Jesus embodied: son of a carpenter, born in a stable, yet son of God, worker of miracles, protector of the poor and needy, sacrificed on the cross. As the Reverend himself said earlier in the year, whether you believe in Christianity or not, do read about Jesus, who provides the most amazing example of leadership we have, and do consider that message as you go out to your own lives. May they be happy ones; and may you appreciate both the ordinary and the extraordinary in equal measure.