Monday Author: Susanne Skinner
“Joy comes to us in ordinary moments. We risk missing it when we get too caught up in chasing the extraordinary.”
~ Brene Brown
We begin our lives as a single cell and enter the world with trillions of cells that mark the start of our earth-bound journey. No one can tell us how many days we will have or how best to use them; we must discover that for ourselves. The way we live each day is how we will be remembered.
Last Wednesday I attended the funeral of an extended family friend. He got up in the morning with no indication he would die. He was my age, healthy and energetic; and suddenly he was gone. The photograph collages at his service show a smiling man doing everyday things with people he loved. It was a reality check for many of us and a stark reminder that we only have now.
Family and friends paid tribute to him, sharing stories about how he touched their lives. We celebrated an ordinary man with a loving heart and a warm smile. He was ordinary in ways we all hope to be remembered; not for what we have, but for relationships we built and how much we were loved. In that way, it is possible for ordinary people to also be extraordinary.
But being ordinary has become passé. Fear of our own insignificance and ultimate mortality dictate new levels of material acquisition; creating hollow definitions of accomplishment and success. Integrity and compassion have been one-upped by possessions and status, obscuring the importance of ordinary and all the wonderful things it conveys.
You Are Not Special
When English teacher David McCullough Jr. gave the 2012 Faculty Address at his Wellesley (MA) High School graduation he did not offer the standard fare served up to high school seniors. He raised eyebrows when he failed to unilaterally praise their achievements, calling none of them exceptional or special just because their parents told them they were.
Instead of reading excerpts from Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go he charges them with the goal of seeking fulfillment in things important to them, not accomplishments for personal gain or self-indulgence. He points out that special is when you help build a medical clinic in Guatemala to benefit the Guatemalans, not so you can put it on your application for graduate school.
Proving oneself beyond the accolades and trophies of high school and finding firm footing in the ordinary real world is the path to extraordinary. When you establish your value there, all things are possible.
If Mr. McCullough had spoken at my high school graduation my future self would have thanked him. The notion of everyone being extraordinary, especially in the boomer generation, is ingrained at birth. Nobody has average children, a B is the new C, every parent is the coach, and failure is not an option. Somewhere along the way extraordinary has become synonymous with success and ordinary equated with well…less than success.
This misconception permeates our culture, creating fabricated perceptions of what both words mean. We have forgotten how to appreciate and celebrate the ordinary.
Life is Not Stuff
When the bus lets us off at the stop called Middle Age we often realize we’ve become defined by our stuff and have to let it go so we can live the life we always planned. We should be living that life now. Death reminds us that someday is not one of the days of the week.
The truth is your friends aren’t going to stand up at your funeral and say “she had a really expensive couch and lots of designer shoes.” Obituaries do not list the things you owned, the car your drove or your job title. They speak about who you were and how you lived your life.
As I listened to the speakers at my friend’s funeral I found myself wanting to be remembered the same way, as an ordinary person who was extraordinary in the eyes of those who loved him. He made a difference to them and that’s what made him special.
Alas, this revelation comes to no one in their youth. When we are young we envision extraordinary lives, believing it validates us as humans. Ordinary implies average, plain, unexciting and boring. In reality it means living the values of kindness, service, compassion, and gratitude.
This certainty is renewed as I sit in the memorial service for a kind and generous man. It brings home the inevitability that friends our age are dying. Death becomes a newer, harsher reality that is coming for all of us. I wonder how many ordinary days are left to enjoy. I ask myself how people will remember me when I am gone.
The Importance of Ordinary
Ordinary has gotten itself a bad rap but it’s really a very fine way to be. I am ordinary. I make mistakes, struggle with my weight, forget to turn off the oven and leave the dog outside—aspects of my ordinary life that I want people to remember. When I am gone I hope the extraordinary will be reflected in other’s lives, those I raised, loved, helped and cared for.
As Mr. McCullough said to his students, “Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”
“It’s not our abilities that define us, it’s our choices”
We’re also enjoined to be “leaders” and “Class A” people in our careers – rocketing up the corporate ladder with the corner office being our end goal. Such is not the case for many people, whether by ability or by choice. (Long ago, seeing the time & family sacrifices and ethical compromises needed to climb that ladder, I decided to stay an engineer.)
Hold that thought David – there is an entire blog post on “meets requirements” that I feel compelled to write, along with draconian HR practices that encourage these ridiculous standards of performance evaluation.
Thank you Susanne that was well written and every word so very true ! Rol lived his life day by day enjoying every moment of air, sunshine, and love. Never worrying about how he looked or trying to impress anyone. He was a free spirit who believed in being good to people and being honest with himself. I can only hope to continue my life practicing what he so graciously lived.