When you ask children what they want to do when they grow up, nobody says laundry.
Nobody says I want to pick up mushy dog poop out of a wet backyard.
Nobody says I want to prepare 1,092 meals every year for a family that complains about 847 of them.
When we dream about the things we want to do, we dream about curing sick people, inventing something new, orbiting Mars, making things. Our dreams of falling in love and starting a family are filled with Pinterest-worthy images of beach trips, school plays and cozy Sunday mornings. We don’t often dream about ordinary time.
In the religion I was raised in, Ordinary Time refers to all the time during the liturgical year that falls outside of the major holiday seasons (Lent, Easter, Advent, and Christmas). The Sundays of Ordinary Time are numbered, and together they make up the biggest part of the year. And while many of the tenets of the faith are based on the extraordinary things that happen during the holiday seasons, the gospel readings during Ordinary Time are about how the human Jesus lived his everyday life. Before he was the Messiah, he was just a guy who swept up his share of the sawdust in his stepdad’s carpenter shop.
The rest of us also spend a big part of our lives sweeping up our share of the sawdust. Midlife – when both career and parenting are at peak, and when aging parents need care – is awash in the ordinary. I’m in the thick of all three right now, the trifecta of the mundane, and I am scared there is One Big Thing I am supposed to do and I haven’t figured out what it is and instead I am wasting my ‘one wild and precious life’ on 9 to 5 and dog poop and making sure everyone gets to their doctor appointments.
And given the regularity of midlife divorces, affairs, breakdowns and sports cars, I think I’m probably not the only one who’s scared. I get most scared when I tell myself horror stories about how I have no choice, how these obligations are taking up all of me, burning through my precious time on the planet and leaving nothing for the Important Work (whatever it is) that I am meant to do.
As always, perspective changes everything. When I see my life as a series of soul-killing tasks that I rush through to get to the next series of soul-killing tasks, never quite managing to save enough time for The Important Stuff, then that is exactly what my life becomes. But if I can pause the horror stories about what I think I know, just for a moment, and enter the space of ‘I don’t know,’ my perspective shifts. Right now.
Here are a few of the ‘what if’ questions that take some of the daily-ness out of my day.
What if we need the ordinary? Every life comes with its ration of the mundane. There are certainly people with the power and wealth necessary to outsource most of their ordinary to someone else; and there are those who default on their share of routine tasks to the extent that those around them take it on. But in the main, everyone has to brush their own teeth, put on their own pants – and people who feel themselves superior to the ordinary are not usually a pleasure to be with. There has to be a reason that mindful completion of commonplace tasks is a spiritual practice in many of the world’s major religious traditions. Maybe humans need the grounding, the connection to the world’s heartbeat, that comes with doing a small task with great care.
What if creativity and the ordinary are not mutually exclusive? According to legend, novelist Mario Puzo wrote his first books at his kitchen table – in the midst of his noisy family, his kids’ homework and squabbles, the dinner dishes. When The Godfather became a smash hit, he used some of the proceeds to build himself a little writer’s cottage…but then found he couldn’t write there, and was soon back at the kitchen table. Some of our most prolific creative minds kept their ‘day jobs’ even after finding success with their art. Maybe the routine, far from dulling our senses, is actually grist for our mill.
What if I could just like this shit? I know – really? Like doing the taxes? The laundry? Cleaning the grout? But as Michael Neill points out in this illuminating post, our preferences are not written in stone, and indiscriminate enjoyment of daily life is our nature. Allowing it back in can make us happier, less stressed, and more productive.
What if we don’t actually know what’s important? I’ve heard parenting compared to the building of a cathedral in medieval Europe – which was such an immense undertaking that the workers who built it would not see it completed in their lifetimes. They glazed windows they would never see light pour through; hewed beams for roofs they would never worship under; stacked one stone on the next and the next, in the total absence of the sense of accomplishment, the closure, we value so highly today. They took it on faith that their work mattered, was part of a larger good.
I love the cathedral as metaphor. (And this is one of my favorite books.) But I’d argue that it’s not just parenting, but life, that is like this. Real knowledge of our impact on the world is rare once we reach adulthood, and we tend to think that the only things we do that matter are the things that get noticed and appreciated. In truth, the world turns on the invisible work of unseen hands. I don’t know who built my house or my car, who picked the beans for the coffee I drank this morning, who made the coat that keeps the rain off me. I will never be able to thank or acknowledge them. All I can do is pay it forward, doing my own share of the invisible work to the best of my ability before releasing it from my hands. I trust it fits in with your work, in a way I will never see or understand.
So give yourself a high-five once you’ve heaved today’s rocks into place. Let’s worry less about what anyone else sees, and more about how we feel while we’re doing it.