• Michael Edmondson

How often do you value the ordinary?


Today is December 8 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “How often do you value the ordinary?

Let’s start off by examining the history of the word ‘ordinary.’

The etymology of the word ordinary stems from Latin ordinarius meaning "customary, regular, or usual.”

Examples include “it is customary to say thank you when someone holds a door for you,” “the regular shift workers called out sick tonight,” and “the usual suspects were called into question.”

People who navigate the chaos know that they encounter many ‘regular’ or ‘usual’ people. These ordinary people may feel invisible to others. They may feel as if their lives pale in comparison to others.

For those navigating the chaos, however, these ordinary people are visible and contribute in some small way to everyone they encounter.

Throughout any given day there are usual people such as store clerks, administrative assistants, and countless other members of the service industry that go unnoticed by so many people. There are many reasons for this; none of which are covered in this Navigate the Chaos post.

Today’s post discusses the value of the ordinary. Those that navigate the chaos value the ordinary by demonstrating some level of compassion to those they encounter. As you go about your day working on one goal after another, ask yourself how often you stop and ask ‘ordinary’ people you encounter how they are feeling.

Do so intentionally and listen to hear not respond. If time is of the essence and a conversation is impossible in the moment, then challenge yourself to be kind to those ordinary people that cross your path.

For centuries writers, scholars, and observers have been contemplating the ordinary. German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, English novelist Mary Ann Evans, former U.S. President James Garfield, author Judith Guest, and scholar Joseph Campbell have all shed light on those in the shadows.

The 18th century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship in 1796 and wrote the following passage concerning the ideal of helping others to achieve their potential: “If you treat people as they are, they will become worse. If you treat them as they could be, they will become better. If we treat people as if they were what they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

Three decades later the influential Scottish essayist and translator Thomas Carlyle rendered Goethe’s novel into English in 1824 with a slight twist on the interpretation from the original German: “When we take people merely as they are, we make them worse; when we treat them as if they were what they should be, we improve them as far as they can be improved.”

That phrase, ‘when we treat them as if they were what they should be” demonstrates a truly noble approach towards the ordinary. How often do you treat people as if they were what they should be? Do you even think about others in this fashion? Like Goethe, the 19th century English novelist Mary Ann Evans understand the value of the ordinary.

In her 1871 novel Middlemarch Evans celebrated the ordinary where she wrote “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Here the key phrase is “that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been.” How true! The ordinary help make our lives better and that so often goes ignored.

For example, who is the ordinary person who ensures the traffic lights in our town work correctly? Who are the ordinary people that deliver our packages to our front door? And who are the ordinary people who plow our roads in the snow? Without these ordinary people our lives would be, to paraphrase Evans ‘a bit more ill.’

Evans was an English novelist, poet, journalist, translator and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era.

In addition to Middlemarch, Evans wrote six other novels, most of which are set in provincial England and known for their realism and psychological insight. Evans’ Eliot's Middlemarch has been described by the novelists Martin Amis and Julian Barnes as the greatest novel in the English language.

It is interesting to note that Mary Ann Evans used the pen name George Eliot. Although female authors were published under their own names during her lifetime, she wanted to escape the stereotype of women's writing being limited to lighthearted romances. In other words, Evans used a man’s name to escape the ordinary since people lacked the ability to consider a woman writing about something other than romance.

Evans understood how ordinary men and women made the world a better place. Former U.S. President James Garfield made a similar observations and noted “There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are. They have the gift of kindness or courage or loyalty or integrity. It really matters very little whether they are behind the wheel of a truck or running a business or bringing up a family. They teach the truth by living it.”

Evans understood how ordinary men and women made the world a better place. Former U.S. President James Garfield made a similar observations and noted “There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are. They have the gift of kindness or courage or loyalty or integrity. It really matters very little whether they are behind the wheel of a truck or running a business or bringing up a family. They teach the truth by living it.”

How often have you told someone they make the world a better place by being who they are? Has anyone told you that you make the world a better place?

Throughout the centuries authors have written about trying to uncover how the ordinary deal with life’s struggles.

Ordinary People is one such book and was the first novel by author Judith Guest. Published in 1976, it tells the story of a year in the life of the Jarretts, an affluent suburban family trying to cope with the aftermath of two traumatic events.

Although it won critical praise and awards upon its release, it is best remembered today as the basis for the 1980 film version, which won four Academy Awards including Best Picture.

Guest began Ordinary People as a short story, but found herself writing more and more as she explored the characters in greater depth, wanting to know more about their backgrounds.

"Before I knew it," she says "I was 200 pages in". It took her three years to write, after she gave up her teaching job and decided to concentrate on actually finishing a novel.

It became focused on the psychology of the characters, particularly Conrad, the son of Beth and Calvin, He celebrates his 18th birthday midway through the novel. Like his late brother, he is a good swimmer, but quits the school swim team because being around water reminds him too much of his brother Buck who died in a sailing accident on Lake Michigan.

Guest noted: “I wanted to explore the anatomy of depression — how it works and why it happens to people; how you can go from being down but able to handle it, to being so down that you don’t even want to handle it, and then taking a radical step with your life — trying to commit suicide — and failing at that, coming back to the world and having to "act normal" when, in fact, you have been forever changed.”

The examination of the ordinary, the impact of events, and the ever lasting impression on the ordinary are the main themes Guest writes about in Ordinary People. In your daily interactions with people how often do you remind yourself that ordinary people have their own story? Do you take the time to understand who they are as a person?

Do you believe, as Goethe did that we have the potential to help the ordinary ‘become what they are capable of becoming?’ Joseph Campbell did.

Campbell believed that everyone was extraordinary in their own right and wrote that he never met any ordinary people. Campbell was an American Professor of Literature at Sarah Lawrence College and wrote extensively on comparative mythology and comparative religion. In 1988 journalist Bill Moyers broadcast six one-hour conversations with Campbell for public television. Those conversations would eventually be published in a book The Power of Myth.

In The Power of Myth Campbell noted “I don't think there is any such thing as an ordinary mortal. Everybody has his own possibility of rapture in the experience of life. All he has to do is recognize it and then cultivate it and get going with it. I always feel uncomfortable when people speak about ordinary mortals because I've never met an ordinary man, woman, or child.”

Do you agree with Campbell and his belief that there are no ordinary men, women, or children? Do you believe that everyone has the capacity to be extraordinary?

Are you so busy with your own life that you never stop and help others recognize or cultivate their ‘rapture in the experience of life’ to use Campbell’s phrase?

As you navigate the chaos, how often do you value the ordinary?

#ordinary #GeorgeEliot #author #JosephCampbell #JudithGuest #women #JohannWolfgangvonGoethe

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