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.