As Advent approaches, and the leaves change colors, and the country grows increasingly befuddled, I find myself appreciating the idiosyncrasies associated with working for a small business. Specifically, my own family’s business, run by my tax attorney father and manned by a dozen or so employees. Two months ago, I left my job as a reporter and re-joined the family business. I left my chic apartment for my old bedroom at home. I traded a ten minute bike ride downtown for a 20-25 minute drive up I-71. I no longer talk to state reps or rub elbows with their aids, nor do I attend any meetings at the Statehouse; I do not even keep a camera about my person for good measure. Now, I sit at my desk for the duration of my long, productive and surprisingly exhausting day. It is a typical office work day, full of reading, writing, editing and researching 1031 Exchanges.
I never even thought to regret quitting until a chat with an old mentor; he was dismayed to learn I had not started stringing for the local paper. He wanted to know if he needed to make a phone call. He did not want me to waste my talent. He did not want the grass to grow under my feet. I left the conversation with heavy thoughts on my mind. I returned home dissatisfied.
Discontent with one’s present state of life is not particular to recent college grads. Hundreds of thousands of fellow souls– the young, the middle-aged and even the old– go every day to jobs, internships, the Internet, books, the movies, bars, a bench in the park; all the while looking for a sign or a person or a reason. There is currently a stigma attached to “being ordinary”: the idea of settling, not reaching potential or contributing to the betterment of Society. The culture has been caffeinated and trained in the art of multi-tasking. Thomas Merton said busyness is the biggest American disease; and most of us, willingly infected, have yet to seek treatment. It is like we are petrified of standing still.
Existence can feel bleak when one wants to matter. Everyone hears the siren song of More. But an excerpt from David Remnick’s latest book, “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama,” caused me to re-evaluate and think, perhaps, despite my ambitions, I may actually prefer the mundane and everyday. The book, published earlier this year, extensively quotes Valerie Jarrett, a White House senior adviser and longtime friend of the president, saying,
“I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is. …He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability — the extraordinary, uncanny ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. …So what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy. …He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”
What a large, grotesque character sketch to draw for us ordinary people, the nearly blind! It saddens me to think my fellow restless soul has been “bored to death” nearly his entire life. Did he never chase fireflies as a child? Did he never read? Did he never talk to people? And what of C.S. Lewis’ claim in The Weight and the Glory that there are no ordinary people?
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would strongly be tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
It is not the talent brimming from one’s ears that bores a person; it is their lack of imagination. Intelligence cannot be an informed guide without an imagination, rendering President Obama like Hooper in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the epitome of the modern man, unmoved even by the St. Crispin’s Day speech, because while modernity is busy with progress, the ordinary are content with living. Life is ordinarily where people find the most happiness: time spent with family and friends, swinging from birches, walks in the rain, enjoying the twilight.
On Saturday, I will attend a wedding of two college friends, where we’ll do ordinary things like talk and dance, drink, reminisce and philosophize, worship and give thanks. On Sunday, I’ll go to mass. On Monday, I’ll return to work and have lunch with my dad, to be followed by a run with my dog. I’ll say the rosary. I’ll skip with my sisters and rake leaves with my brothers. I’ll kiss my mother and see old friends.
In short, I am going to happily live like Walker Percy’s ex-suicide, who “opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.” It might be an ordinary life, but even then, isn’t that extraordinary?
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.