I’ve been quiet here lately, and there have been a number of reasons why – family comings and goings and baby sleep issues for instance (the dreaded 4 month sleep regression, hopefully receding into the distance). But also every time I have a post finished it seems something truly dreadful happens in the world – a terrorist act, the heartbreaking Grenfell tower fire, Trump’s latest debacle – and I feel that whatever I had written about is so small and petty it’s not even worth putting out there.
That’s the insidious thing about bad news, isn’t it? Sometimes it can be a needed perspective check that whatever is occupying our minds is likely a #firstworldproblem, but it also reduces us to thinking that we don’t deserve to celebrate small joys and grumble over small grievances, because someone somewhere has it so much worse and we should be doing something about that. But when you think about it, didn’t generations of people sacrifice tremendously, and sometimes even fight and die, for us to be able to live out a series of ordinary days? So why do we seem so sheepish to do just that?
Let’s look at the word ‘ordinary’ for a minute. Dictionary.com defines it as ‘of no special quality or interest, commonplace, unexceptional.’ This is how I learned to use the word in my formative years in the US. But I’ve found in Australia the word has a distinctly negative connotation. If someone asks how you are going, for instance, the standard response could be ‘all right’ or ‘not too bad.’ Sidebar – I say ‘not too bad’ all the time, and I don’t know why. I hate what it implies, that simply going about your usual business is a little bit bad. But ‘ordinary’ is so much worse than ‘not too bad’. If your day is ‘ordinary,’ it’s basically crap.
I’d like to find out more of the etymology of ‘ordinary’ in Australian English one day. However, I feel that the word’s connotation, while not captured in the dictionary definition, is actually spot on as it is exactly what being commonplace or unexceptional has become in our culture. Crappy.
I read a lot about personal development and some new agey stuff and a lot of it is devoted to strategies for sucking all the marrow out of life and having An Impact on the world. I get it – no one wants to read a book or pay a life coach money to be told, ‘nope, just keep binge watching Netflix and you’ll be sweet.’ And I do believe that each of us has the ability to do something exceptional in our lives. But I also feel like the goal posts have shifted in that we are told it is no longer good enough to work towards a few big achievements during our 80-odd years on this Earth, but rather we are supposed to do something exceptional every damn day. And then post photos of it.
The word ‘balance’ is thrown around regularly these days as something to strive for, and I fully support the concept. But when you delve a little deeper into what’s being touted as ‘balance,’ it looks to me like doing a lot of things perfectly – having a great career, a great home life, great friends and hobbies. It seems exhausting, particularly on the days when your cup is empty and all you want to do is cuddle under a blanket, shove a block of Lindt chocolate in your mouth and watch MasterChef. And this vision of ‘balance’ doesn’t acknowledge that it is simply not possible to be exceptional all the time, as something exceptional is, by definition, that which is ‘not typical.’ When we approach our lives this way, we’re entering a race we can’t win.
There’s another way of looking at the concept of ‘balance’, called the ‘Four Burners’ theory. This theory portrays your life as a stove top with four burners – one for family, one for friends, one for work and one for health. If you want to be successful, it says, you have to turn off one burner. If you want to be really successful, you have to turn off two.
This seems more realistic to me. For instance, right now as a new mum my ‘family’ burner is turned up pretty high. Luckily the ‘work’ burner is off, so I can manage to keep the others, friends and health, simmering away. But what will happen when I inevitably have to return to work? Yes, I can turn down a burner, but the fact is I don’t really want to turn any of them off. And here’s where things get tricky.
I’ve read a few takes on the Four Burners theory, and most agree with the general premise that if you want to be successful, something has to give. They then focus on work-arounds (like hiring a cleaner so you have more time to spend tending the burners) or acceptance of ‘seasons’ in your life (i.e. the work burner is off when you’re at home with a small child, or the friends burner is off when you’re putting in long hours to establish a small business.) There’s nothing wrong with these suggestions, but what they don’t give serious consideration to is just letting all four burners perpetually simmer on medium. That’s not an option, because it means you’re not a success. You may be dividing your time between work, family, friends and health, but you’re just ordinary at them all. But what’s so bad about that?
I suggest we flip the script on this and start to view the contents of a full, ordinary life as ‘successful’, even if none of our burners are fully blazing. A life where we work to meet our needs, ideally in a job we enjoy, but not one we are consumed by every evening and weekend. (Remember, no one on their deathbed wishes they spent more time at work). A life where we can devote time to loved ones without having to attend every school function or hand make birthday cards for everyone we went to primary school with, unless of course we genuinely want to do these things. Where there is enough time and energy left over to nourish our bodies and minds, however that looks on any given day, including the days where we just want to skip that workout or drink that extra glass of wine. And when the time comes when something upsets the balance and requires temporary burner shut down – a grueling work project, a home renovation – we recognise it as an exception, rather than the norm. For what it’s worth, I also think we should throw a fifth burner in the mix (I know, right?), that of service to others. Some of us might get this through our work, but many of us do not, and I don’t think you can really consider your life as a success if you don’t do this in some form. And if none of your burners are on maximum, there might just be some extra fuel laying around to give to someone who needs it.
I think this mindset would make us happier as it essentially celebrates what a lot of us are doing, or at least trying to do, anyway. It’s achievable. And if you are someone who wants to chase after the world-changing extraordinary, go for it Grasshopper, let your light shine with open eyes as to the trade-offs that will be involved along the way. Lord knows the world needs folks who do this. But the truth is we don’t all have to, and we certainly don’t all have to all the time.
I love the quote by the poet Mary Oliver: ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ What I love most, though, comes from the context of the rest of the poem, which is called ‘The Summer Day.’ (You can read it in its entirety here.) Without reading it, you might think that Ms. Oliver is telling you to hurry up and finish that bestseller. What she says, however, is this:
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
To spend time outdoors, observing the natural world, the most ordinary of things – that is to be blessed.
So who’s with me? Embrace the Ordinary.