The ordinary

February 5, 2007 | 22 comments
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However well we do in school or our jobs or in our church callings or in any endeavor, most of our lives are and will be ordinary. There are great moments in life. The moment of my conversion was one (47 years ago on the 2nd–wow! that seems impossible). My marriage was another. The births of my children and grandchildren are also. But much of life has also been writing one more memo, attending another meeting, preparing to teach a class again, answering the same question, preparing the usual lunch or dinner, doing my laundry again, making the bed every morning. Sad are the people who spend their lives hoping that most things or many things will be extraordinary, for happiness does not consist in a life filled with extraordinary moments, but in a life that is, by and large, ordinary. If a person’s ordinary life is not a good life, filling it with extraordinary moments is unlikely to make it better.

The meaning of word ordinary–”customary,” “usual,” “common”–hides something worth looking at more closely: order. “The ordinary” is “what has been ordered.” What is ordinary can be customary, usual, or common because it is part of a particular order, specifically the order in which we find ourselves at home. A Bic ball point pen is ordinary because it is part of the order of writing. We see it and know immediately what it is and how to use it. We have places in our pockets and desk drawers made to hold it. Its place in our world is so assured that we often overlook it. In contrast, a $1,000 Japanese lacquer fountain pen is extraordinary because it is not part of that order. We may, of course, write with it, but we wouldn’t carry it in our shirt pocket, leave it lying about, or loan it to others. And, in fact, we might never write with it, or seldom.

Much about the ordinary world has changed in my life time, though I am not yet sixty. I was born in rural Missouri, and when I was born rural telephone systems were mostly party-lines, phones were hand-cranked, electricity was a relatively new arrival (within 30 years, and often much less), and for many people water pumped by hand and out house toilets were ordinary. Before my children were all born, that had all changed. The order of the world in rural Missouri was very different than it had been. And, as an expatriate of Missouri, I have changed even more than has my birthplace. Today I seldom think about what it takes to get water, and I use my Trio for phone calls, e-mail, and my calendar, wishing at the same time that I’d perhaps waited and bought an IPhone. Though I come from a long line of people who did what they called “honest work,” day-laboring, small-scale farming, blacksmithing, and machine work, I make my living as a bourgeois professor of philosophy.

Nevertheless, though the ordinary is common, customary, and usual, it is also not something to be ignored. Indeed, we ought to celebrate that things such as vaccination, full supermarkets, city sewage systems, treatments for cancer and epilepsy, public transportation, private cars, mobile phones, cable television, literacy and education are all now ordinary, and all deserve our praise. Our lives are what they are because so much has become ordinary, and we ought to labor and pray that what is ordinary for us becomes ordinary for many more. We live longer and more comfortably because of many extraordinary things that have become ordinary. We know more and have access to more because of other extraordinary things turned ordinary. What was outside of the ordinary has become part of it and is no longer much noticed or noted.

That we don’t notice the ordinary is one of its great benefits. If I were overwhelmed with excitement and surprise at my computer every time I sat down to write or to read in the bloggernacle, I wouldn’t be able to use it as well as I can. Were the gear shift lever and gas pedal in my car things I notice much, I would drive like a sixteen-year-old, who has difficulty precisely because he or she notices what is ordinary to any practiced driver.

But the opposite is also true: one of the problems of the ordinary can be that we no longer notice it. I have a beautiful view of Utah Valley from my office window at BYU, but when it becomes ordinary and usual, it disappears. Rather than a picture on my wall reminding me of the great beauty with which God has surrounded me, my window becomes only a device for letting light into the room and checking the weather. My life with my wife is customary. When things are going well for us, we live in the usual way, and we like that. We prefer to avoid the extraordinary. However, it would be a tragedy were I to allow her to disappear as my window has, to become only a tool of some kind in my life. Order blesses us, but it can also hide great things from us. When the extraordinary becomes ordinary, otherwise important things tend to slip into the realm of “tools for other purposes.” In contemporary society, that danger has become rampant. Allowing valuable things to disappear as tools has resulted in such things as pornography and the fracturing of the family by external forces. For many, real sexuality and real family life have disappeared into the realm of ordinary tools.

What responses to this dilemma are possible? Few of us have to worry that the new things in our lives will not become ordinary. However, we will all have to be concerned with how to avoid the ordinary swallowing up important parts of our lives. The answer to that concern is easy to say, though its practice seems not to be as easy. Albert Borgmann, a philosopher at the University of Montana, has talked about a variety of ways of engaging ourselves in our lives so that important things do not disappear as tools. A life with art is one way. Engagement in community sports is another. Religion is still another important one. However, one way strikes me as particularly important to Latter-day Saints, an insistence on family life. Family life includes family prayer and Family Home Evening. It includes eating meals together. It includes working and playing together. The life of the family is curative for the dilemma because it puts the ordinary in the service of what must remain extraordinary. It puts the ordinary in service to our relations with one another. In family life, the tools of our lives cease to have a life of their own because they must serve our familial purposes.

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22 Responses to The ordinary

  1. Julie on February 5, 2007 at 5:51 pm

    I appreciated your thoughts on the ordinary. It made me think of something I read recently by Marilynne Robinson; she talks about the ordinary in one of her essays from her book The Death of Adam. She says speaking of Christ:

    “He is a figure of unutterable loneliness, only pausing to speak to Mary before he ascends to heaven, yet it is his very ordinariness that disguises him from her . . . Then if, after his ordeal, Jesus had gathered around himself just the composure of an ordinary man, so that he could be mistaken for someone going about his work, that would seem like a miracle and grandeur, that would be an astonishing beauty. It seems to me that the narrative, in its most dazzling vision of holiness commends us to beauty of an altogether higher order than spectacle, that being mere commonplace, ineffable humanity.”

    Reading this post shortly after reading the above quote by Marilynn Robinson makes me wonder about ordinariness in the context of relationship with our family, but also with the Savior. I keep thinking and wondering if it is in the “mere commonplace, ineffable humanity” – even maybe the mundanity of mortality that the atonement becomes real and textured and manifests grace in our lives. Thank you very much for your thoughts.

  2. m&m on February 5, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    I wrote a post related to this topic a while back. Rather than repeating myself, I’ll just include the link.

  3. m&m on February 5, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    “Rather than repeat myself,” I mean. :)

  4. Mathew on February 5, 2007 at 6:32 pm

    Jim,

    I think this post is among the top five I’ve read in bloggernacle. It explains better than I could how the seemingly ordinary can be suffused with happiness. My wife recently commented on the same phenonmenon, stating that degrees from two Ivy League schools and a prestigious job didn’t bring half the happiness of being a mother. We joked that she could have saved herself a couple hundred thousand dollars and a decade of her life by getting pregnant when she was sixteen. But in fact neither one of us believes that. It took both the big events of the past decade and the millions of little ones to bring her to a place where changing a diaper is more than keeping a baby’s bum clean.

    Similar thoughts came to me last weeks while reading Karen Hall’s post at BCC that discussed her religious worship while stationed in Afghanistan. In that thread I wrote the following: “It is ironic how force of habit can dull spititual life, yet the same habit is imbued with additional meaning when we experience a disruptive event. Should diligent disciples of Christ cultivate ostranenie as a means of deepening and renewing their faith?”

    Am I correct in thinking that your answer to that question would be “yes”?

  5. Otto on February 5, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Jim.

    A couple of weeks ago in priesthood meeting, we were talking about family home evening. Now first off, I must admit that there are precious few things I’ve been able to develop any sort of consistency with in my life. My prayer habits, both personal and family, are shamefully on-again off-again. Scripture study habits wax and wane on a nearly lunar cycle. I consistently avoid the things I’m supposed to avoid in order to keep my temple recommend, but I’m a slacker in many other ways.

    Except for FHE. That’s one thing that my wife and I determined we’d do consistently, and started doing as a couple, long before we had kids. And we’ve been able to keep it going pretty consistently for years. So, during this priesthood meeting I mentioned this, and described how grateful I was that we had carved out this particular frame of time within our weekly rituals to devote to family gospel practice. I was surprised at how many of my brethren actually protested this. A number of them said things along the lines of “We’ll we hardly ever do an actual FHE with a prayer and treats and everything, but we just kind of do stuff together all the time and it acheives the same end, so what’s the difference?” One guy said “You know, when I’m driving my kids to school we kinda talk about spiritual stuff sometimes, so I don’t see the point of doing the Monday night thing.” Aside from the general casualness with which my co-congregants dismissed direct ecclesiastical counsel, I was bothered by their response for another reason, one that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time.

    This post helped me figure out what bugged me so much about their response. The thing that I value about FHE is that it creates a space for a kind of focus, apart from the everyday living-the-gospel and being-niceness that hopefully characterizes ordinary, everyday life in a Mormon family. When I tell my kids I love them while completing the ordinary act of kissing them goodnight, that’s one thing, but when, in the middle of a the consecrated, focused discussion during family home evening, I tell them I love them, there’s something different going on. The ordinary acts of domestic kindness and ordinary gestures of familial affection become (to borrow a literary term from the Russian formalists) “defamiliarized.” It seems to me that these fora that we create within our families and within our church, which are said aside to explicitly articulate what’s most important to us, serves an important purpose in reviving the acts of gospel living that can otherwise become routine and shopworn to us.

    The tool metaphor points up the negative examples as well. Which late 19th or early 20th c. continental philosopher was it that talking about not noticing the form of the tool until it was broken and its usefulness to us was comprised?

  6. Nehringk on February 5, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    Jim:

    Thank you for the thoughtful and thought-provoking post. One of the things that struck me when I ready it is how sometimes it takes extraordinary things to wake us to the ordinary. For instance, an illness can make you realize how wonderful health really is. A plumbing problem with the human body can make you remember how extraordinary not just sex, but married love, can be. My goodness…

    Thanks, Jim, for making me think and feel.

  7. anonymous on February 5, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    This post perfectly describes my internal struggle with regularly reading my scriptures. They have become, sadly, ordinary to me. I don’t notice them. The Book of Mormon does not do what it did for me the first, second, or even ninth and tenth time reading it. I refuse to make the scriptures into something they are not, but when I look around at people who enjoy reading their scriptures, this is what I see many of them doing. They draw insights from verses that I don’t believe exist in the text. They parse phrases and analyze verb tenses in the Book of Mormon, reaching conclusions that I find unreliable due to the fact that the BoM was not written in English. The scripture readers that I do admire have made the process an ordinary part of their lives, yet they manage to find meaning; they manage to keep noticing the text. How does one stay engaged in a process that we are taught to make such an ordinary part of our lives?

  8. Christian on February 5, 2007 at 7:23 pm

    What about connecting scriptures to each other? I have a hard time believing you could pick up all the meaning there in a mere ten readings. And the insights you get are a lot more basic, simple, and useful than anything that you strain out of a verb tense.

  9. Bookslinger on February 5, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    What comes to my mind are trips to places where they don’t have the ordinary daily comforts we do, whether it be a formal mission, a vacation, or a short visit.

    I found myself in awe and wonder of hot showers, ubiquitous cool clean drinking water, reliable electricity 24/7/365, and carpeting after coming back from a mission to a third world country. The constant awe and wonder has gone, but there are occasional flash-backs in which I consciously feel gratitude for those amenities.

    On the spiritual level, we can also seek to put new “things” in our pile of infrequent extraordinary stuff. We can also seek to properly transfer some of those things from the extraordinary pile to the ordinary pile. Though if they are of the spiritual variety, we might keep them in a “reverent” pile, so that the spiritual doesn’t become profane.

    Sometimes an effort to be humble about the extraordinary misguidedly goes in the wrong direction and turns into a lack of faith. I have found that some things I have reverenced as spiritually extraordinary in my life are actually things that Heavenly Father wants to become common-place and “ordinary” so that I can move on to the next level in the process of growth and learning. What I mentally put on the top of my internal “extraorindary pile” should actually be on the bottom of a new pile.

    What’s past is prologue.

  10. Susan S. on February 5, 2007 at 10:14 pm

    Sounds like rural Idaho wasn’t that much different than rural Missouri. I am always amazed, when I think about it, about how much the ordinary has changed since I was a child.

  11. Norbert on February 6, 2007 at 3:19 am

    Yes yes yes. I just finished reading a stack of student essays on this topic: ‘Discuss the everyday activities of life in the literary works you have studied.’ So I’ve been thinking a lot about this very topic.

    In autumn of 2005, as the winter depression was setting in and I was trying to figure out how to cope, I sat in a testimony meeting where a recently widowed 87 year-old man told us, with tears in his eyes, how beautiful the world was, and what a gift every day of life was. I was incredibly moved, and I was inspired to emulate him. I started keeping a journal, which I call The Book of the Sublime. In theory, every day I record one thing I saw or experienced that made me feel joy, that I found beautiful or that uplifted me. I have had this for more than a year now, and even though I don’t write in it every day, I am in the third volume. What I find is that the book is filled with small acts of kindness I see on the bus; sunrises, leaves falling and snowfalls; the joy my wife takes in singing to our boys. Interestingly, it is the family routines that show up the most often: family home evenings and bath nights and prayers. It has helped me keep an even emotional keel and to see the splendor of the ordinary.

  12. Russell Arben Fox on February 6, 2007 at 8:34 am

    “In autumn of 2005, as the winter depression was setting in and I was trying to figure out how to cope, I sat in a testimony meeting where a recently widowed 87 year-old man told us, with tears in his eyes, how beautiful the world was, and what a gift every day of life was. I was incredibly moved, and I was inspired to emulate him. I started keeping a journal, which I call The Book of the Sublime.”

    Norbert, that is a wonderful idea, particularly for those of us for whom January and February–the post-holiday winter–are difficult months. Thanks.

  13. Lamonte on February 6, 2007 at 2:13 pm

    Thank you Jim for writing this post. Certainly too much of our lives has become ordinary and we take it for granted. In many cases it is only after something is gone that we start to appreciate it. I have experienced these feelings when a loved one passes or when another circumstance in my life changes drastically.

    I also wonder about the extraordinary moments in our lives. Our wedding day, the birth of a child, experiencing an accomplishment ourselves or celebrating the accomplishment of a family member, an exceptional trip or vacation; seeing natural, or even man made, wonders for the first time – all of these and so much more add to the richness of our lives. And the spiritual experiences add so much as well. These are usually spontaneous experiences but I have found that it is possible to re-live those experiences by deliberate effort if we keep them locked away in our hearts and heads for safe keeping and then occasionally allowing them to surface to remind us that God loves us. Reconnecting with God’s love by drawing on those memories will add great joy to our otherwise ordinary lives. Thanks again Jim for reminding how extraordinary my ordinary life is.

  14. T-Bone on February 6, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    Sorry for intruding on this thread. I just wanted to leave a note for Jim F. In case you are still interested in thinking about the topic, I responded to your post on Science and Nihilism.

  15. Stephanie on February 6, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    I think it was President Hinckley that said something like most of life is like an ordinary train ride and that occasionally it would be interrupted with bursts of speed and light but that the trick is to enjoy the ride. I think you have that part figured out!

  16. Stephanie on February 6, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    Ok I found it.. yeah… here is the quote I was talking about…

    “[The fact is] most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. …

    “Life is like an old-time rail journey—delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.

    “The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride” (“Big Rock Candy Mountains,” Deseret News, 12 June 1973, A4).

    Gosh I just love that… that pretty much wraps it up! No more replies needed! LOL

  17. DKL on February 6, 2007 at 7:23 pm

    Great post, Jim. The secretary at my office is in her 20s and single. On monday morning, she asks me how my weekend was, and I say, “Great.” She asks what I did, and it doesn’t usually add up to what she thinks is fun. Doing yardwork, making my meager contribution to the chores that need to be done around the house, finishing office work at home, driving the kids around, going to church, etc. She always seems so sympathetic, and it’s impossible to explain to someone who goes home to an empty house how nice it is to have more than just a few hours in the evening to chill. Ordinary is underrated. If the extraordinary were really all that it is cracked up to be, then things like this wouldn’t be silly at all.

    What you say about growing up in the rural south reminds me of something I read in an essay by Edward Ayers (a bourgeois professor of southern history) entitled “What We Talk about When We Talk about the South.” He describes his trips to his grandparents’ house, where there was running water and electricity, but things were otherwise quite backwards:

    To me, Burnsville[, North Carolina] stood for my family’s past. It was close enough to visit yet far enough away to embody things abandoned. In this it was no different from the grandparents’ farms of many of my generation of Southerners. It showed us how far we had come, how quickly things had changed. But that farm did not feel like “history.” It was associated with no events, no public acknowledgment. It was just there, fading before our eyes, a lost America. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I just held it close to my heart but away from any future I imagined for myself.

    I suppose that the undocumented world of our childhood, the one that disappears in the wake of progress through time, is one of those extraordinary things in life that sadly becomes ordinary.

  18. Sheldon on February 6, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    Thanks.

  19. Jim F. on February 6, 2007 at 10:55 pm

    Julie: Thank you for the quotation from Robinson. It is beautiful and captures more than I did of what I wanted to say in a reverential tone that I didn’t capture.

    m&m: Nice post. Thank you for linking to it.

    Mathew: I hadn’t seen Karen Hall’s post, so I was pleased to be referred to it. Thank you. And you’re right, I think my answer would be “yes.”

    Otto: I think the philosopher you have in mind is Heidegger and you’re referring to his discussion of tools in Being and Time (1927). When you say, speaking of what happens in Family Home Evening, “The ordinary acts of domestic kindness and ordinary gestures of familial affection become (to borrow a literary term from the Russian formalists) “defamiliarized,” you summarize well Albert Borgmann’s thinking.

    NehringK: My goodness indeed!

    Anonymous: Various people and groups have perfected methods for making scripture study a time of learning and meditation, foremost among them probably the Jews. You might wish to look into some of what they do. Or read some of Robert Alter’s work about scripture. Or simply try http://feastuponthewordblog.org/, where you’ll find other Saints talking about studying and teaching scripture better.

    Christian: good advice, thanks.

    Bookslinger: I remember a similar experience coming home after my mission and I’ve seen my children have it. I think you’re right that there are spiritual things which ought to move to the ordinary. Surely the companionship of the Holy Ghost is one of those things.

    Susan S: I bet that much of the rural U.S. was very much the same. One of the ways I know I’m old is that I sometimes corner my grandchildren and make them listen to me tell them how much the ordinary has changed in my lifetime. They are always indulgently polite, but I suspect what I say is, at best, amusing. It is nice, however, to have an audience young enough that I can force them to listen.

    Norbert: I agree with Russell, that is a beautiful idea.

    Lamonte: I don’t disagree with you about the need to treasure some things that we can call forth on occasion as objects of wonder and awe. I didn’t mean to say that the extraordinary is unimportant. But I also think it is important to sometimes to wonder in awe at the ordinary, to see its beauty and be grateful for it.

    T-Bone: Thanks for telling me about your response to the other thread. Well done, and–unfortunately for me–convincing. One more proof that I ought not to dash off posts from the top of my head.

    Stephanie: Thank you for the quotation. I’ll have to squirrel that away for future reference.

    DKL: My students are often like your secretary. Either they imagine that I do something incredibly intellectual and philosophical at home or they feel sorry for me when they discover that I do the same things everyone else does. Thanks for the Ayers quote. (I am, by the way, descended from the Southern Ayers family and so some sort of very distant cousin of his.) He describes far better than I could the feeling I had about my grandparents as soon as I began to notice that they lived differently than we. I could see how far my family had quickly come, but I didn’t know what to do with my past.

    Sheldon: Thank you for reading this.

  20. Kevin Winters on February 7, 2007 at 7:55 am

    “At bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extraordinary.”
    Heidegger, “Origin of the Work of Art”

    I’ve been returning to this quote ever since I read it in Jim’s class a few years ago, but I must admit I’ve not applied it so widely as Jim’s post talks about. Probably because of my intense focus on trying to do something novel, new so that I can get notice in the academic community (which might not happen anyway), so I miss the greatest “ordinary” events in my life.

  21. Otto on February 7, 2007 at 11:08 am

    Thanks for introducing me to Borgmann, Jim. I’ve been reading around a bit this morning (a few book chapters, news articles, and interviews available here and there online), and I’ve found it very engaging.

  22. Nehringk on February 7, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    Looking back at this thread again, I suddenly heard in my mind a Van Morrison song titled “Ordinary Life.” The refrain goes:

    Ordinary life, be my rock in times of trouble
    Get me back on the earth
    Put my feet on the ground

    It is from “Hymns to the Silence,” a recording I have not played for a long time but that I will dig through all sorts of piles this weekend to find it so that I can play it again — if I still have it. My ordinary life tends to be a mite disorganized. If I find this recording, in fact, that will be extraordinary!