A few weeks ago, I wrote about being “Enslaved to the Pressure of the Ordinary.” This was a quotation I found in The Screwtape Letters, and what I thought was a self-revelation I had during our COVID-19 lockdown and the “new normal” we have to face. This is what I wrote:
“for me, the strange self-revelation of 2020, is how much I am mourning the ordinary. I don’t want a new normal, I have come to realize. I want the old normal, the patterns and stirrings and possibilities of everyday life before the end of the world hit in early 2020”
Characteristically, it takes me more than a single try to find my words and ideas. This is one of the reasons I blog: sometimes you have to say something out loud to know if it is true. A number of people wrote to me, concerned that I was missing an essential part of life that they had recovered themselves. “The mundane can be beautiful,” one person assured me. Another reader wrote in and said:
“’Ordinary Life’ can be a good gift from God. It is when our clinging to or yearning for ordinary leads us to sin that is the danger. If we hold it loosely, if we are willing to accept whatever God brings us in each day, I am not certain it is wrong to appreciate and savor the good in the ordinary.”
I think this reader is on to something that is inside of me, though I would press it a little further. I do think that the “every day” can be a gift, can be beautiful in its very mundaneness. I like the image of holding the ordinary loosely, because what my self-revelation was about in 2020 was actually the enslavement to the normal that worried me. And reflection since has led me to realize that I learned more in 2020 than I had imagined.
For the last two decades, I have lived my life trying to resist the snares of “what everybody does,” shaping my vocational choices, my community service, and my family life as a kind of resistance to the white picket fence suburban picture of success I had imbibed as a child in the late 20th century. For a long time, that meant staying off the grid of socioeconomic culture, living a kind of vagabond lifestyle in various parts of the world. Since then, because we have made certain choices, I have been able to write and teach and study what I wanted–always with unhelpful pressure to pay the bills as a non-tenured, unsponsored public intellectual, but never finding ourselves disappearing into sheer necessity. Socially, spiritually, intellectually, religiously, environmentally, and economically, I have resisted the “normal.”
Indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, I believe it to be immoral for most Christians to live a normal Canadian (or American, or Western European) lifestyle. Even if not immoral, how tepid to live one’s life according to the Baby Boomer washing out of the American Dream that has been handed down to us!
And yet, with all my rebel dress and revolutionary heart, COVID-19 hit and I found out how absolutely dependent I was upon the normal systems and patterns of our world. I now believe I have always misunderstood Mario Savio’s famous speech. He protested in 1964, crying out that
“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart”
So sick at heart. That’s where my mind hung since I first heard those words, sampled in a song I now forget. How mind-numbingly, soul-destroyingly normal North American life seemed to me–enough to make me sick at heart, though I am not one of the oppressed. To be a cog in that machine that strains the last bit of life out of every person–no, of course, I mean every taxpayer. Sick at heart. Those words.
Yet I missed the part where Savio called us to cast our “bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels” of the machine, to allow our ragged flesh and crushed bones to jam the workings of the whole damned and damnable thing. 2020 has been that kind of year too, a year of disruption, of reflection about the systems we participate in and the ones we perpetrate. Though I have been trying to reconfigure the machine, I have not died upon it.
As this call for liberation echoes in my ears this year, it brings home even more clearly to me my desperate “attachment” to this world–to use a Buddhist image. In St. Paul’s words of Romans 12:2, I have aligned the schematic of my life to the world’s blueprint in ways I was never aware of. I think the two kinds of liberation are linked, that we cannot truly have that radically sacrificial, community-connected, love-infused liberation of Romans 12 as long as we are simply cogs in the machine of the world around us. That this world system is so liberating to many, so full of opportunity and beauty and potential for equality, only makes our unreflective submission to it even more nefarious.
Thus the normal kills–both in the individual soul as well as the systemic violence of bigotry and inefficiency and technocratic ends that match economic means.
And yet there is great beauty and grace and laughter here in the ordinary. This cup of coffee, the music in my ears, waking and laying down in warmth and love, children playing in the other room, the cat supervising my work, these books at my elbow and on my bedside, making love and sharing the sign of peace, mandarin oranges, arugula, cameras in our pockets, fat snowdrops on red and brown faces, beautiful eyes above non-medical masks, the season’s death and rebirth in the great turning of the world. Oh, the beauty that there is!
So when I wrote late last year about enslavement to the normal, I really was not rejecting all the little patterns we make in our jobs and families and friendships. Humans are liturgical beings, and I believe it is healthy for us to make little liturgies of the ordinary. Sometimes that ordinary is disrupted like it was in 2020. And in that disruption, I discovered patterns in myself that I could not recognize in the cross, which is the model of true life. For there is also a danger in the normal, the mundane, the everyday–as anyone who has been crushed by the machine of the world can tell us.
Intriguingly, even when kindhearted readers were challenging me about my understanding of the ordinary, I knew I was struggling with the words to say what I mean. Truly, I anticipated that I wasn’t quite capturing what I wanted to say even before I published my piece. So I picked up a book to read devotionally, Frederick Buechner‘s The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017). Each year I select one of Buechner’s memoirs to reread, and The Remarkable Ordinary is very much reminiscent of those autobiographies. There are also echoes of key texts like The Alphabet of Grace, A Room Called Remember, and Whistling in the Dark. In The Remarkable Ordinary, Buechner reads his life as a text. And in this story, he shows how the transformational moments in his life have not been grand miracles, but the attention to the details, the anticipation of the predictable, and astonished reflection upon the ordinary.
Admittedly, this tiny book is not a terrible tight collection. It pulls together some old lectures and some new material to help us recover or reimagine our relationship to mundane reality. However, with some imagination on our part, we can walk alongside Frederick Buechner as his memories and experiences show the little moments of grace in the daily routines and terrible surprises of life. To live my life going against the grain of the world’s systems–both in solidarity with those who suffer and for the health of my soul–does not mean that I reject the simple and lovely ordinary things in life. Indeed, I think that’s where my greatest strength comes from: the Spirit of God in my heart and at my elbow, at my desk and the dinner table, as I lay down to sleep and rise to walk in the road. So I am thankful for Frederick Buechner’s newest collection of ideas for reminding me of the liberation that comes in the normal moments of life.
This week, I will be blogging each day with a reflection from Frederick Buechner‘s The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life. You do not need to have read the book to enjoy these articles, but this is a text worth having.