“I think that I may be the voice of my generation,” says Hannah Horvath (played by Lena Dunham), the protagonist of the television show Girls, to her parents after they threaten to cut her off financially. At 24 years of age, she believes that she is destined to be a great American writer. She thinks her writing should appear in Harper’s Magazine or The New Yorker, as all great writers’ work does. She wants this so much that she is unwilling to start at the bottom the way that all writers must. She is, in her mind, predestined for greatness. There are moments in the show, however, where she begins to realize her ordinariness, and, eventually, turns her life around.
The story of Hannah is a parable of coming to terms with just how normal our humanness is.I’ll admit, from this very first scene, I was interested in Hannah. She doesn’t just set high goals for herself but for other people as well. Her relationships with her friends seem pretty superficial. She isn’t interested in their lives or their own love interests. As a matter of fact, the scenes that include them all simply show her tolerance of them. The only one she doesn’t “tolerate” is Adam, her somewhat well-meaning, immature, borderline-abusive boyfriend for the first few seasons.
And why should she care about other people? She is smart and talented, and has attended a good college. She lives in Brooklyn, the Mecca of artists (full disclosure: I also live in Brooklyn). Being a Millennial, she embodies the same presuppositions about life that most privileged people do in her position. But the reality is that she is much more like us than we would like to realize. As I watched season after season of Girls, I became more aware of how much I dismiss others in conversation, or how many times I open my mouth to retort to people during disagreements before they even utter a word.
It isn’t just in personal relationships that I identified with Hannah, though. It is also on a career level. Being average in our culture isn’t enough, because it seems akin to settling. Marketing isn’t just something the Mad Men do; it is a way of life. That is why the number of Twitter and Instagram followers that we have can set our identity more than a creed or faith ever could in our culture.
There are several times when Hannah has opportunities to grow in her experience as a writer. She got an opportunity at GQ magazine to write sponsored posts. It isn’t every writer’s dream, I know. But Hannah has an opportunity to use that platform to grow, even if that growth may seem slow. However, she sees her peers and the time that they have spent at the magazine and refuses to live her life slaving away for the money.
The Iowa Writer’s Workshop also becomes an option for Hannah, who applies for graduate school when her career isn’t shaping up the way she thought it would. She decides to attend, leaving her boyfriend Adam in the process. When none of her peers responds well to her writing, she lashes out and ridicules them. Of course Hannah doesn’t think anything is wrong with her writing. Yes, it may be a bit intense, but that is only because she is exploring the depths of the human condition—or so she thinks. Not being able to get along with anybody in her class, she decides to leave Iowa to go back to her life in New York.
As the seasons pass by, and Hannah becomes wiser about her place in the world, she begins to conform. She sacrifices little things here and there on her road to becoming ordinary. While working at a coffee shop, Hannah meets a (rich) man with whom she impulsively gets into a sexual relationship. Ultimately, she realizes how similar—how non-different—she is from everyone else, contrary to what she had always believed. “I realize I’m not different,” she tells the man. “I want what everyone wants. I want what they all want. I want all the things. I just want to be happy.”
She comes to the end of herself when life doesn’t go as she planned, which is the sad song of all of our lives: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). As I grow older, I’m beginning to realize how insignificant I really am. I’m also beginning to understand how significant an ordinary life is. What would be so wrong with me not being a famous writer? Would it be so bad to work a day-to-day job, write for only a few people, and love and serve my family and neighborhood? I’m not the genius that I thought I could be when I was younger, and this realization brought me a fair amount of anxiety about my future.
As I have gotten older, I have relinquished that anxiety at the foot of the cross, understanding my ordinariness, but also the fact that I am loved by God. The anxiety that I felt as a result of being ordinary was largely self-serving and interested in how people can love me. It wasn’t based on God’s glory. I have limits; we all have limits. G. K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy, “The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits.” By season five of Girls, Hannah has begun to recognize hers.
All of these feelings culminate in Hannah working her way into the education system in New York City and finding a new love interest. Not Adam, who messed up his chance with Hannah, but a new boyfriend named Fran, who isn’t interested in the “extraordinary” Hannah, just her as a person. The story of Hannah is a parable of coming to terms with just how normal our humanness is.
Our culture values celebrities. We are sold the lie that the “great life” is living as a star. But I’m willing to bet that ordinary people don’t live that lifestyle, and that is okay. Living ordinarily is precisely what Jesus did too.
Consider his thirty years of obscurity, when he worked a normal job. Were there thoughts in his head about the dullness of his daily habits at work? Were there thoughts about whether he should move up the social and economic ladder? After all, he was God. It was love for us that be became a common man. He emptied himself of his glory, taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7). And he did so for over three decades before he began to accrue any kind of fame: a fame that led to his death, by the way. What makes Hannah any better? What makes me any better?