The Beauty of the Ordinary

By: Dale M. Coulter
Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

The most rewarding part of traveling for me is the time to return home. No matter how visually stimulating the sights or how interesting the people I meet, usually around day seven something clicks, like an internal homing device, and I begin to yearn for the wonderfully familiar sights, sounds, and structures of home. While others may crave the excitement of the novel, I crave the ordinary. To hear the loud sounds of my children, whether they be the joys of laughter, the tears of pain, or the bursts of anger–these to me are full of life. More than that, they are the very ingredients of life, providing its texture and flavor.

It is the beauty that comes from a shared meal; hearing my four-old’s rhythmic munching as he chews his food and catching a glimpse of my wife’s eyes as she smiles and I smile back. It’s as though we know, in that moment, we have met life–our life. Or, it’s hearing our girls imagining a world where dolls come alive and learn to recite their vocabulary words or to read aloud. It’s the morning routine that begins with the sound of the shower humming and ends with rushing out the door to get the kids to the bus stop on time. In the constant ebb and flow of the ordinary, we find an echo of eternity.

As humans we need stability, whether we recognize it or not. The structures of family, at their best, help us discover again and again the better angels of our nature. They ground us in ways that the novel–the exciting change of newness–simply cannot. The journey of self-discovery is not the aimless wanderlust of moving from place to place, but the slow and steady knitting together of ourselves with others. A steady diet of wanderlust merely fractures relations so that we move in and with the superficial, where everyone is a friend because everyone is a stranger. The ancients knew that eternity is about absolute stability; it finds its echos in the structures we build with others that hold and hold us through the seasons we all experience.

But it’s not simply the constant movement of shared life that echos eternity. What stabilizes family and gives this movement its meaning is the love central to its survival; love, not primarily in the sense of physical attraction or even passionate yearning, but the deep love that stems from a commitment to build something together until death pulls us apart. Too often we reduce love to a sense of gratification akin to the taste of a good meal when love is more about what happens around the meal than its taste. Sex can occur between strangers, but love takes a lifetime of intimacy to develop. This is because true love stabilizes all our passionate explosions and affective longings for one another by the constant choice to bind ourselves together. These choices, made in so many ways over the course of a lifetime, stabilize eros so that it becomes a constant and virtuous movement. Once we have it, the dependable movement of love pulls us back again and again into its orbit and reminds us that we were made for something more.

Don’t get me wrong, the ordinary is not easy. On the contrary, it is a struggle to live together. We yell at each other; we get impatient; we wish that someone would simply turn off the lights or pick up their clothes or do something else that annoys us. We stress over homework, the demands of the job that await us the next day, or the bills that must be addressed. And we get on each other’s nerves; boy, do we get on each other’s nerves!

But that’s life. We cannot see the beauty of the ordinary without the daily struggles bound up with it. The beauty of the ordinary only comes from the struggle to build a life–together; a shared way of living out every tragedy and every triumph. The beauty is what we have, not what I have; and what we have is not simply the window dressing of cars, boats, houses, and clothes. It is the relationships that these sustain and support.

Most people never seem to get to the ordinary because they are too busy pursuing the exciting and extraordinary. They build empires and never build a life. In fact, there are some who actually destroy lives in their effort to amass the window dressing of life. They exist in an upside-down world in which what should be peripheral becomes central.

We can catch a glimpse of the ordinary by learning how to recognize moments where life bursts in upon us. Some cultures are better at this than others. They recognize that friendships require long pauses of hospitality in which business activity is suspended so that relational activity may abound. The serendipitous moments of life seep through the “small” talk, which is really deep talk served out in small doses. From this perspective, to “get down to business” is to fail to see the difference between surface and depth. The question is not about working more or less efficiently, but why we work at all. If we work to live, then we must allow life to occur.

And so, I look for the moment when life–my life–calls me home once again. I have learned to recognize it. It’s the sudden realization that every child reminds me of my children. It’s catching in every glimpse of those subterranean expressions of intimacy between the couples that pass me by my wife’s smiles and her touch. With each memory that bursts upon my conscious mind, life beckons me to return to the familiar and discover its sustaining power once again. Seek the ordinary because it’s there that the beauty of life unfolds before us.

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Dale M. Coulter
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