Something inside us despises the ordinary. Something there is that tells us that ordinary life, with its predictable routines, domestic rhythms, and conscription to duty makes for cheap meaning. Inside us there is the sense that the ordinary can weigh us down, swallow us up, and anchor us outside the more rewarding waters of passion, romance, creativity, and celebration.
We vilify the ordinary. I remember a young woman, a student of mine, who shared in class that her greatest fear in life was to succumb to the ordinary, “to end up a content, little housewife and mother, happily doing laundry commercials!”
If you’re an artist or have an artistic temperament, you’re particularly prone to this kind of denigration. Artists tend to make a spirituality of creativity out of this kind of feeling. Doris Lessing, for example, once made the comment that George Eliot could have been a better writer “if she hadn’t been so moral.” What Lessing is suggesting is that Eliot kept herself too anchored in the ordinary, too safe, too secure, too far from the edges. Kathleen Norris, in her recent biographical work, The Virgin of Bennington, shares how as a young writer she fell victim to this ideology: “Artists, I believed were much too serious to live sane and normal lives. Driven by inexorable forces in an uncaring world, they were destined for an inevitable, sometimes deadly, but always ennobling wrestle with gloom and doom.”
The ennobling wrestle with gloom and doom! That does have a seductive sound to it, particularly for any of us who fancy ourselves as artistic, intellectual, or spiritual. That’s why, on a given day, any of us can feel a certain condescending pity for those who can achieve simple happiness. Easy for them, we think, but they’re selling themselves short! That’s the artist inside of us speaking. You never see an artist doing a laundry commercial!
Don’t get me wrong. Not all of this bad. Jesus, himself, said that we do not live by bread alone. No artist needs that explained. He or she knows that what Jesus meant by that, among other things, is that routine, dram-duty, and a mortgage that’s been paid do not necessarily make for heaven. We need bread, but we also need beauty and colour. Doris Lessing, who is a great artist, joined the communist party as a young woman but the left after she’d matured. Why? One phrase says it all. She left the communist party, she says, “because they don’t believe in colour!” Life, Jesus assures us, is not meant to be lived in black and white, nor is it meant simply to be an endless cycle of rising, showering, going to off to work, responsibly doing a job, coming home, having supper, getting things set for the next day, and then going back to bed.
And yet, there is much, much to be said for that seemingly dram routine. The rhythm of the ordinary is, in the end, the deepest wellsprings from which to draw joy and meaning. Kathleen Norris, after telling us about her youthful temptation to side-step the ordinary to engage in the more ennobling battle with gloom and doom, shares how a wonderful mentor, Betty Kray, helped steer her clear of that pitfall. Kray encouraged her to write out of her joy as well as her gloom and to “dismiss the romance of insanity as a sham.” As Norris puts it: “She tried hard to convince me of what her friends who had been institutionalized for madness knew all too well: that the clean simple appreciation of ordinary, daily things, is a treasure like none on earth.”
Sometimes the mentor that teaches us this is illness. When we regain our health and energy after having been ill, off work, and out of our normal routines and rhythms, nothing is as sweet as returning to the ordinary – our work, our routine, the normal stuff of everyday life. Only after it has been taken away and then given back, do we realize that the clean simple appreciation of daily things is the ultimate treasure.
Artists, though, are still partially right. The ordinary can weigh us down, outside the deeper waters of creativity, of one-in-a-million romance, and of the wildness that truly lets us dance. But anchors and weight also have a positive function. They keep us from being swept away. The rhythm of the ordinary is perhaps the most powerful anchor of all to hold us in sanity.
Paul Simon, in an old 1970s song entitled, An American Tune, sings about coping with confusion, mistakes, betrayal, and other events that shatter our innocence. He ends a rather sad ballet quite peacefully with these words: “Still tomorrow’s gonna be another working day, and I’m trying to get some rest. That’s all I’m trying, is to get some rest.” Sometimes obedience to that imperative is what saves our sanity. There’s a lot to be said for being a contented, little person, anchored in the rhythms of the ordinary.