In Praise of Ordinary
Ordinary is the new black
Are you tired of trying to be ‘shiny’? Are you bored of comparing yourself with everyone else? Or dissatisfied by the need to constantly compete?
If you answered yes to any of the above, then join us in praising ordinary. This celebration of ordinary is designed to help you to reconnect to your own unique ordinariness and appreciate the ordinariness in everyone else; recognise the value of yours and other people’s everyday ‘ordinary’ offerings; understand that your value is yours to ‘value’- it’s not reliant on anyone else’s’ approval; and enjoy the small, simple moments in order to find more presence and meaning in everyday life.
We live in a society that is obsessed with the idea of being special. We all want to be unique, and to stand out from the rest. Anything to avoid being seen as average, normal, run of the mill and perhaps worst of all… ordinary. In his book ‘Embracing The Ordinary,’ Michael Foley explains that there are “cultural factors such as the new obsession with celebrity that makes anonymous, mundane life seem worse than death.” Yet ‘ordinary’ is a relative concept. What seems ordinary to you might seem very unusual to someone else. So, instead of trying to be special in relation to everyone else, we’re connecting to our own unique ordinariness. Because if we’re all chasing the same ideals, aren’t we in a sense becoming somewhat ordinary. Becoming the same as our neighbour as opposed to embracing the differences that make us who we are in everyday ordinary life.
Attuning to Ordinary
“Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.”
– William Martin, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents
At the heart of good parenting is attunement. This involves being aware and attentive to the micro moments a baby creates. And this has a lot to with our abilities in non-verbal communication. In fact, this trend continues into adulthood as research shows that over 93% of our communication is non-verbal. It is this “dance of attunement” between parent and child, that builds the foundations for a trustworthy world, within which the child feels safe to take risks and try new things.
As a child starts to take, baby steps (quite literally) parents and caregivers often find themselves amazed by these small and simple moments. They are proud of the baby for simply being a baby and for doing baby things. Not for being special. And this attunement to the micro experiences that the child creates is a crucial element in the attachment process. Under ideal circumstances these processes of attunement “shape a young child’s maturation through a meaningful system of communication that provides their infant cues to guide interactions.”
Babies crave to be loved exactly as they are. Yet, as they develop and grow they learn other ways to ‘be special’ beyond simply being themselves. They get called ‘a star pupil’ for getting the top grades in class, or ‘super talented’ when then win the 100m sprint. Simply being themselves is no longer enough in a society that celebrates being ‘special’. Special makes you shiny and different. And thus, the endless striving to be bigger, better, faster, stronger begins…
You are enough
The internet bombards us with visuals that can all too easily trigger a sense of ‘I’m not enough.’ One scroll through Instagram can cause a whole host of unhelpful comparisons that can leave us feeling not fit enough/ rich enough, pretty enough/ thin enough/ smart enough/ happy enough/ present enough. The list goes on.
In his book ‘If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him’ psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp describes a patient’s challenge with “I’m not enough”: “She seemed for a time to be so preoccupied with accomplishing something to please me so that I would accept her, that she absolutely could not comprehend that I liked her very much just the way she was. (If she wanted to change something in herself for her own best interests, I would be willing to help, but I had no personal need for her to change at all.) It was far more frightening for her to accept the way I valued her as a gift, a stroke of grace over which she had no control, than to struggle to find some way to sing for her supper, to purchase acceptance (or at least to rent it). That way, at least, she could maintain the illusion that she had power over my happiness (as well as the option of rescinding it if need be).” What’s interesting is that the patient in this example is more comfortable and secure with her belief in not being good enough, because it offers her a sense of control. After a lifetime of striving and looking for the next thing, stopping and accepting that her ‘ordinary’ is enough might seem a little daunting.
Best-selling author, relationship therapist, hypnotherapist trainer and motivational speaker, Marissa Peer, prescribes 3 words to people like the aforementioned patient: I am enough. Peer is a big champion of those 3 words because of her belief that “You are enough not because you did or said or thought or bought or became or created something special, but because you always were.” And Peer suggests saying these words as often as possible, so that we can start building the new belief in our brain’s belief system. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was your brain. So, expect it to take time. However, if you keep repeating and reinforcing the belief, you will start to truly believe it. And you’ll start to see that the people who love you see it- and have always seen it too. Your ordinary self is 100% enough and wonderful exactly as it is. Everything else is an add-on.
Your obvious is your talent
“Creativity is the way I share my soul with the world”
– Brené Brown
Keith Johnston, author of ‘Improvisation and the Theatre’ is a big champion of what we like to call ‘obvious creativity.’ “The improviser has to realise that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears.” When an ordinary person is asked to step up on stage and improvise a scene, they might find themselves desperately searching for a clever and original idea. Yet, we are improvising all the time in life- and what an audience likes to see from an improviser is the simple, obvious answers – that the audience member may or may not have considered themselves. Take for example a scene where someone asks “what’s for dinner.” A bad improviser might try to come up with an original and witty idea like “a deep-fried dolphin” yet in reality, “fish and chips” the simple, ordinary answer which first came to mind, is much more likely to delight an audience. This is because no two people are alike. Johnston explains that “the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears. If he wants to impress us with his originality, then he’ll search out ideas that are actually commoner and less interesting.”
One study, titled the ‘ordinary creative’ argued that: “the potential for creative thinking exists to a greater or lesser degree in everyone. Ordinary creative thinking is proposed as a point of view in which creativity results from ordinary people thinking in identifiably unique ways when they meet everyday problems in real-life situations.” By default, we are all designed for creative and innovative thinking. It’s trying too hard to be special that crushes our capacity for creativity and limits the scope of our imagination. Johnston actually goes so far as to describe an artist as ‘someone inspired by their obvious.’ They are not making any decisions but are instead accepting their first thought. And according to Louis Schlosser, Beethoven once said: “You ask me where I get my ideas? That I can’t say with any certainty. They come unbidden, directly, I could grasp them with my hands.” Suppose Beethoven, or Salvador Dali or any of the other artistic greats had tried to be original? It would have been the undoing of their true selves or as Johnston states: “like a man at the North Pole trying to walk north.” Striving to be special only leads to mediocrity because you end up with a watered-down version of your own obvious, brilliant self. To quote Oscar Wilde: “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.”
Catching the big fish
“When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else”
– Isis Apfel
David Lynch, Author of ‘Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity’, aligns the concept of catching ideas with catching fish: “If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.” Yet, these big and beautiful ideas are found within, and are therefore the most ordinary, most obvious and also, the most true to ourselves. To use the beautiful words of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of ‘Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear‘: “One of the oldest and most generous tricks that the universe plays on human beings is to bury strange jewels within us and then stand back to see if we can ever find them.”
Live a ‘Lagom’ life
I’ve spent a lot of my life being shiny. So much so, that shiny, has started to lose its shine. I find myself much less enamoured by the ‘show’ of special and more interested in the raw and real parts of myself and of others. The parts that make me me, and you you. The parts that make us human. Impressing and performing have their place…and…I’m investing more time co-creating, deeper all-inclusive friendships. Relationships that accept the whole me and not just a one-dimensional, show-pony version of myself. The ordinary, average bits of me that don’t need to say anything to entertain or impress. Or perhaps- as I did with a dear friend the other day- not having to say anything at all. We sat for the afternoon in gentle conversation, shared contemplation and sometimes silence, simply being with each other, as opposed to doing anything or trying to be anyone else. As we were saying goodbye I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that my friend must think I’m incredibly boring. But you know what? She turned to me and told me that that was just the afternoon she’d needed and thanked me for my company. Me doing nothing- simply being ordinary average me- was well and truly enough.
What unremarkable things would people miss about you? And what stupid, silly things would you miss about your nearest and dearest? To quote from The Lake written by Banana Yoshimoto: “It occurred to me that if I were a ghost, this ambiance was what I’d miss most: the ordinary, day-to-day bustle of the living. Ghosts long, I’m sure, for the stupidest, most unremarkable things.” Perhaps when your partner is next away on a business trip, or during the daytime when your kids are at school- stop for a second and notice what you might miss about their everyday, ordinary presence. This quick lesson in gratitude will help you attune to the people you love, like a mother to a baby. A love that loves them for who they are. Exactly as they are.
Now I know this is hard. A career in acting has made me well aware of the pulls towards shininess. And perhaps now more than ever young children are encouraged to aim for greatness, or else expect a doomed future. We need to take the focus away from special and teach our kids that ordinary is okay too. The Swedish actually have a word for this: “lagom” which means: Not too little. Not too much. Just right. There’s less striving and more space to be satisfied with what you already have. Which aligns with Buddhist teachings in minimalism. Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, is quoted as saying: ““Having few desires, feeling satisfied with what you have, is very vital: satisfaction with just enough food, clothing, and shelter to protect yourself from the elements.” Lagom is essentially about mastering the art of moderate, embracing average and celebrating life’s small simple wins. Psychologist Jaime Kurtz, writes in Psychology Today: “For a happier, more balanced life, start by asking yourself, “Is this lagom?” Ask it when you look inside your crowded closet, or as you consider your relationship with your work. Ask it when a massive portion of food is placed before you, or as you consider that second bowl of ice cream. Ask it about your life in general. Amid the more typical American life questions, like “Am I joyful?” and “Can I do better?” add in these much more reasonable questions: “Am I content?” “Is this good enough?””
I’m going to add one more to that: am I okay with being ordinary?
In Praise of Ordinary
Our consumerist culture and societal obsession with celebrity doesn’t make ordinary an attractive or easy destination. But think of it as a journey inwards. Towards destination me. The more ordinary you become the more yourself you’ll be, and thus the more of your unique gifts you’ll have to offer to the world. Instead of trying to be what you think other people want you to be, why not see what your unique ordinary might bring to the party. Your unique ordinary, that makes you unlike anyone else.
Embrace ordinary and you might discover a much more extraordinary way of living. One that celebrates average, everyday events and inspires great gratitude for the ordinary relationships and experiences which make up a life. Oscar Wilde once wrote: “Be yourself: everyone else is already taken” I’m going to leave you with this:
“Be your ordinary self and someone else will find you extraordinary.”