New Years Resolutions: Finding Transcendence Within the Ordinary

6 January 2007
n his acceptance speech
for the Nobel Prize for Literature, William Faulkner shared what he felt was the "secret" of his writing:  He said he wrote about Universal Truths:  "the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."  He continued, "The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."
Indeed, some of the greatest American novels have been written about ordinary people living their ordinary, daily lives.  What makes these novels great is their use of the ordinary to illuminate extraordinary aspects of life or thought.  Great writers use their skill to illuminate universal truths which may not leap out at us every day, but which nevertheless are contained in our everyday experience, if only the light is shone on them in a certain way.  Tom Wolfe wrote about his ordinary experience as a young man in a family in Asheville; Will Faulkner wrote about ordinary people living their lives in fictional Yauknapataupha County, Mississippi; Charles Frazier writes about a very ordinary war deserter who is just trying to make his way home; One of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ neighbors found her depiction in Cross Creek so insulting — in other words so close to ordinary life — that she sued the author for libel.  Sue Monk Kidd writes about coastal South Carolina with a voice that makes one feel he is experiencing the salt marsh.  Beauty in the ordinary.  
Before I came to China, I had listened to this admonition that the extraordinary can be found in the ordinary, but I couldn’t relate that to my own experience.  I didn’t see how the ordinary — my ordinary life in a small town — could possibly be interesting.  What could be different or unusual enough to justify writing about?  Have you ever felt the same?  Have you ever asked, "what could possibly interesting or different about my life?"  The bottom line is, I urge, that every life is ordinary, and yet every life is extraordinary.  Yours, too!  Everyone, everywhere, has hopes, fears, thoughts and dreams, people they love, things they enjoy doing, things they feel passionate about.   I am no exception, and neither are you.  In this sense, we are both completely ordinary.  But ordinary is also extraordinary.  In the qualitative sense — in the value of life itself, in the opportunity for richness of experience, in depth of imagination — every life can be extraordinary if we dare.  Your life is, indeed, extraordinary! 
The only thing that sets apart my China experience is something I attempt to share liberally in this blog in a way that others can benefit as well:  the fact that when one "ordinary" (the American experience) rubs up against another, very different, "ordinary" (the China experience), the extraordinary nature of each is illuminated.  The contrast of my life in China, juxtaposed against my "other," very different, life in another country, highlights the unique and unusual nature of things I otherwise might have taken for granted, had I lived all my days in one country.  
The experience of living far away from my home culture has made me appreciate, even more than ever, the spectacular beauty of a flaming Carolina sunset (see my photo album "Beautiful Carolinas, this Blog), the bitter saltiness of country ham, the comfortable softness of a friend’s welcoming sofa, the soulful beauty of a Moses Hogan song, the texture and smell of richly composted, black mulch crumbling through my fingers, the pungent aroma of fresh lemon basil from my garden, even the raw sound of James Brown!  Since living away from my home environment, I’ve realized only more fully the extraordinarily rich nature of these ordinary experiences.   Similiarly, some aspects of things people think are quite ordinary here in China — the oily and pungent flavor of "white sauce chicken," the aroma of sandalwood in a temple, even the pitch and cadence of spoken Mandarin — are extraordinary and remarkable when experienced from outside the mainstream cultural context.  I’ve read that when Marco Polo wrote about ordinary Chinese life, his descriptions were so extraordinary that people didn’t really believe him!  It turns out that "ordinary" is only a matter of perspective.
In the factual sense, of living in unusual times or circumstances, some are luckier than others.  Or unluckier.  Winston Churchill was a privileged kid with access to education, but in another sense he was just an ordinary student who grew up in ordinary times.  He was dyslexic and, thus, a poor student in school.  As Churchill’s school records (on display at Chatsworth, his birthplace) chronicle, his teachers never thought he would amount to much, and he feared the same.  But he proved them wrong.  When the extraordinary circumstances of the mid 20th century thrust him into an opportunity rise to the occasion, rise he did.  He said of his times:  "These are not dark days; these are great days – the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race."  
The genius that Churchill had was to see a transcending view of reality and then to impart that view, a spiritual sustenance, to those willing to seek and take hold of that vision.  For only a year earlier, Churchill had said in his famous speech, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. . . . We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, ‘come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.’ "
I believe each of us has opportunities to rise to the occasion.  To see where or how, to find the answer to the question, "What Occasion," perhaps we need look no further than our noses.  In the ordinary, there is the opportunity for extraordinary.  In each day, we have the opportunity to see the world afresh, to experience life anew, to gain a purpose in life.     
In his autobiographical chronicle of his final days and illness "The Gift of Peace," Joseph Bernardin (a South Carolina native) wrote about his struggle with cancer and pain, painful events in his life, and the letters he exchanged with his good friend, Henri Nouwen.  Bernardin was feeling discouraged by increasing physical weakness caused by cancer, pain, and questions about "why." He shared these doubts with Nouwen.  Nouwen encouraged Bernardin to write of his experiences, to show a path of light for those facing terminal illness themselves.  And so Bernardin did, finding purpose and transcendence even in this most grounding of experiences.  In the epilogue, it is written that Bernardin finished his book only hours before he died.  In a similar example of a life committed to finding meaning in the ordinary, Nouwen writes in his book "The Prodigal Son" of his own decision to give up a life of intellectual opportunity to live in a community for mentally retarded adults and of the rich rewards he finds in that life. 
In conclusion of this missive, I’d first like to invite each person reading this, as we greet the new year, to think about the challenges and opportunities which circumstances in life may lay on the table.  Take a moment to assess what may be transcendent in its ordinariness.  What opportunities, dangers, or experiences to savor lurk under the veil of the mundane?  I remember once, when I had two little children both in diapers, too many bills to pay, too many dishes to wash, a plugged toilet drain, and my idea of a good time was to fill a back yard kiddie pool with water and sit in it with the babies, the plumber (there to fix the toilet) told me I would remember those times as  some of the happiest years of my life.  "Yeah, right," I hissed in my mind.  But looking back on it, he was right:  the abundant beauty of those moments I DIDN"T MISS with those beautiful children is now crystal clear.  Sitting in that baby pool, dyeing Easter eggs on the backyard table, or swimming in that muddy Sesquicentennial Lake, are among my most precious memories.  . . . . So, this year, find beauty in your OWN ordinary.  And strive to make that which is "ordinary," better in the sense of acknowledging its richness. 
Second, I’d like to invite you to sample one of my favorite Blogs.  While Nouwen and Bernardin were already intellectual giants when they wrote their books, sought by publishers because they were already well known, I’d like to recommend for your reading writings by a young lady whose descriptions of her ordinary life — thoughtfully lived and vividly described — beautifully transcend the strict subject matter of harvesting leeks or burning French toast.  A Blog that, for me, captures the richness of "simplicity," in all its beauty, subtlety, and complexity.  A journal that is fresh, observant, open to possibilities, and perhaps even prayerful in the active sense captured in Nouwen’s book "With Open Hands."  Written by someone who is not yet famous but whose life has quiet, positive impact on scores of others. 
I’d like to recommend my cousin’s site, linked at:  I hope you enjoy her diary as much as I do!  (Thanks for sharing, SEB!  I look forward to seeing what realms of possibility the future holds for you!)  
Referenced works:
Churchill’s Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat speech: 


1 Comment

Filed under Ethics

One response to “New Years Resolutions: Finding Transcendence Within the Ordinary

  1. Molly

    Wow, and all I was going to do this year was try to lose weight! Maybe one reason people don\’t comment on your blogs is because no one wants to spoil it by adding our mundane comments to your wonderful insights. I\’ve been slowly reading through all your blogs for the past year, and realizing that perhaps I should be writing down my own experiences here more. It\’s been a great help to me to read yours, and realize how much more I could be getting out of this entire living in another country experience. It\’s often easy to succumb to the frustration and isolation and question one\’s sanity for attempting to live here. But reading your blogs, realizing that it\’s not just always me and my personal short comings that cause some of my problems, has helped so much.
    I think it\’s always easier to look at someone else\’s life and see the extraordinary. I used to work with severe and profoundly disabled individuals. When we would take our clients on outings (shopping at the mall, going to a movie) all of the caregivers had experienced having people come up to us and say things like "you\’re so amazing for doing this job! I don\’t know how you can do it! It just breaks my heart to see these poor people. You\’re a saint!" blah blah blah. Like our clients weren\’t sitting right there in their wheelchairs and couldn\’t hear what they said. And we would all of us look at each other, and say "what\’s so special about treating another human being like a human being? So our clients can\’t do everything physically other people can. So what? They don\’t deserve any less respect as humans than anyone else does. And why does that make me a saint for recognizing that?" People back home think I\’m living an exciting, action-packed life because I\’m in China. Not really. Sure, I have the ability to go see a pagoda, or a temple or eat strange food. But in Iowa I could go to the woods on an autumn day and see 15-20 wild turkey scrounging food in the fallen leaves, or catch sight of those white tails flashing as deer took off after smelling me coming. I can experience nothing like the spring day I encountered a fawn, less than my walking stick\’s distance away from me, spots blending perfectly with the dappled light, all curiosity to check me out until we heard mom\’s snort (and it was a lot like a bull\’s snort, sure scared me!). The fawn dropped in its tracks and froze, and instantly became almost invisible. And Mom kept snorting around and crashing around trying to lure me away. Can\’t see something like that in China! That, to me, was an extraordinary experience.
    So thanks for the reminder, Xan, about finding the amazing in the everyday. And keep on writing. I, for one, love reading your blogs!

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