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ordinary life

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.

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6 replies to this post
  1. So glad to find you here, Julie!

    Just this past summer I gave my husband a birthday card with this Booker T. Washington quote…

    On the battlefield, when surrounded and cheered by pomp, excitement, and admiration of devoted comrades, and inspired by strains of martial music and the hope of future reward, it is comparatively easy to be a hero, to do heroic deeds.

    But to uphold honor in ordinary circumstances, to be a hero in common life, that is a genuine achievement meriting our highest admiration.

  2. An hitherto unpublished Reagan anecdote for you. A generation ago I shared an office with a then-old man who had been Reagan's advance-man in the 1950s GE Theater days when they roamed the country by train and kept up grueling schedules speaking to GE workers and the general public. In upstate NY, they staggered back late to a poky, shared hotel room about 6 hours before their early-morning departure when the manager stopped them in the lobby and pointed out a young woman who had waited there since 11 a.m. to see Reagan. The advance man said it was impossible, Reagan insisted he'd only be a few moments, but he made it up to the room at 3 a.m. saying she had acted on local stages and wanted his advice on going to Hollywood for a screen test. "It took me four hours," Reagan explained, "to convince her that the best audiences in the world were right here in her home town, and that if circumstance one day got her a part on Broadway then so be it, but she should stay here among people who loved her because, trust me, she'd never have a better audience." The advance man told him to go to bed and as Reagan turned out the light he mused, "you know, Earl, tonight my time was well spent if I can convince even one nice girl to stay out of Hollywood and not squander her life as a waitress and maybe a hooker."

    Reagan would have agreed with Chesterton who said 'we are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.' Wonders are ever at our fingertips. Miss Robison has the greatness of spirit and the wisdom to see it where she lives,and the skill to express it beautifully. I have spent enough time in over 50 countries, often among the political and journalistic elites, to believe that this eloquent young woman has it right.

    Chesterton also said that people travel to experience the same old thing – identical hotels and fellow travellers – while people who want real diversity live in a large family or a small town. So Mr Obama is too great for a small town? Codswallop. Maybe he couldn't find a small town that wanted him. Keep writing, Miss Robison – you do it very well and it is within your power to replicate Ronald Reagan's little act of kind wisdom but do it for multitudes.

    Stephen Masty

  3. I want to thank you, Julie both for your candor and for reminding me of the great CS Lewis essay, The Weight of Glory. It can be found at, and I recommend everyone to take a handful of minutes to read it. I read it aloud to my wife and we both sat quietly afterwards, feeling like slightly elevated and better people. The ordinary is truly extraordinary.

  4. Julie, so good to see you here! Your piece is a beautiful reminder to me, as a young and ambitious college student who often thinks we must save the world. Yet, to revive the republic, we must live in community. This community includes the ordinary–eating at the table with our family, talking to our neighbors, and worshiping in communion with believers and with God. We rekindle community by ordinarily, and often unknowingly, bringing others the flame of truth, goodness, and beauty. Thank you for rekindling the flame in me, and thank you for giving up official titles and lofty agendas to pursue the most beautiful thing–living, and living in community with family, friends, and with God.

  5. This is just one stage in your life. Enjoy it well, experience it fully. Not every decade of your life requires huge focus, sacrifice or effort. So enjoy your youth, dear. BTW V Jarrett is a phony and a totalitarian, and her worship of B0 is pitiful and reeks of reverse racism.

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