Appreciating the Ordinary: A Modest Proposal

After wending our way through heated discussions about having it all, spoiling our kids, and being mired in our self-important “Busy Traps,” a New York Times article appeared last week like a cool mountain lake at the end of a long, tortuous hike.

In the piece, Alina Tugend writes:

All year, my sons’ school newsletters were filled with stories about students winning prizes for university-level scientific research, stellar musical accomplishments and statewide athletic laurels. I wonder if there is any room for the ordinary any more, for the child or teenager — or adult — who enjoys a pickup basketball game but is far from Olympic material, who will be a good citizen but won’t set the world on fire.

This desire for the extraordinary is nowhere more evident than in our current overparenting culture. Even among my two-year-old daughter’s cohort, I hear parents boasting about their kids’ huge vocabularies and early walking. You can almost hear them gearing up for their toddlers’ valedictorian speeches and Harvard acceptances. I know I’ve harbored similar outsize dreams — who doesn’t want their kid to be that special one? But, at some point, all that striving to be or raise or experience the extraordinary causes us to lose sight of the smaller, ordinary moments that truly matter.

As Tugend wonders:

How do we go back to the idea that ordinary can be extraordinary? How do we teach our children — and remind ourselves — that life doesn’t have to be all about public recognition and prizes, but can be more about our relationships and special moments?

I thought of my nine-year-old son’s recent Little League season. As the season went on (and on), and the team struggled for the championship then came up short, I would get so anxious sitting in the bleachers with the other parents that I could barely watch. I wanted them to win so badly it hurt. But as it turns out, it’s really hard to hit a baseball, and pitching a fast one is no easy feat, either. In fact, the whole game struck me as more about failure — and what you do in the face of it — than the feats of athletic genius and come-from-behind victories I kept hoping for. Halfway into the season, I realized I had to let go.

That’s when I started to see that the most satisfying moments of the season weren’t the big hits or the surprise catches, but the smaller, ordinary events. Some were so mundane I almost missed them: The older gentleman, a perfect stranger, who stopped to give our son some tips on form as he practiced pitching in our back lot late one afternoon, our son’s decision to spend his coveted allowance on bags of gummy worms to share with his teammates at every game, and his newfound ability to walk the mile from our house to the baseball field on his own. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of him than the day I was racing down Memorial Drive on my way to the game and saw his four-and-a-half-foot frame up ahead on the sidewalk, small duffel bag slung over his shoulder, making his way to the field on his own.

I came to see that Little League victories are easy — everyone knows what to do — but it’s in the losses that we have to remind ourselves what really matters. Even on bad days, I’d remind my son (and myself) that he and his teammates made some nice plays, bucked each other up, and stretched themselves in new ways. After a loss, the crestfallen players would sit in the dugout and their coach would try to raise their spirits. He would always say something that encapsulates the perfect approach to life. I sometimes think of it when my day (or week or month) hasn’t unfolded in quite the extraordinary fashion I’d hoped for: “We didn’t win today, but a lot of good things happened.”

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  • Carleton Kendrick

    Profound wisdom from Lao-tzu about the ordinary:
    The ancient Masters
    didn’t try to educate the people,
    but kindly taught them to not-know.

    When they think that they know the answers,
    people are difficult to guide.
    When they know that they don’t know,
    people can find their own way.

    If you want to learn how to govern,
    avoid being clever or rich.
    The simplest pattern is the clearest.
    Content with an ordinary life,
    you can show all people the way
    back to their own true nature.

  • Katherine

    Thank you Carleton for sharing those words of wisdom.