In Praise of the Ordinary
As a teenager, my sister wrote a poem which I thought was rather splendid, all about being lost in a wood “filled with trees clothed in leaves turned golden with your glory.....You wanted to wear the sky as a cloak with the sun as a clasp” she wrote, with what seemed to me breathtaking lucidity on the human condition, writing of terror at being lost, remorse and finally reflection, before at last setting out “once again to lose yourself”.
I knew what she meant, especially in those early teenage years, oscillating as I did between feeling lost and wanting to come into some sort of personal power (be glorious). At that age, some people seemed to me to me to be so glorious as to be most unlike me, almost demi-gods or goddesses. A tricky projection to deal with, and for anyone accidentally identifying with the projection, it comes with a severe health warning! We all know about hubris – that Ancient Greek notion of overstepping, of getting above ourselves - and the disasters which befall those displaying it. Think of Icarus’ desire to fly higher on his beautiful wax wings and the loss that brought him and his father. Think of the Tower of Babel. So, we are manifestly not gods and goddesses and are warned to remember this through myths, fairy tales, proverbs and the like (‘pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall’). Most of us will know from experience that life burns us when we get above ourselves. We are warned, yet still have to grapple with our own recalcitrant natures. One of my favourite stories (the source is now lost to me) is of a Buddhist monk who forehead is always injured through constantly bowing so low before Buddha. He needs to bow more often and lower than the others because he is by nature so proud. Yet, says the story, the master loved him best because of his proud nature. Make of that what you will. I take it that in knowing himself and taking action while still being himself, the monk is loved. A way of saying “all are needed!” In recent years, I have had the great pleasure of deepening my studies, especially through inquiry into my own life, and experiences. I have journeyed with some pretty amazing people. What has often been the best sign in such circles is if it feels ‘ordinary’. By this I mean, while my fellow travellers have been to a person extraordinary and amazing, when we have all been dealing with very human situations, keeping hold of ordinariness is is our strength. When I think of coming to know my own proud nature a little better -how I often shuttle between the dangers of inflation (for very little reason, I hasten to add! But that is how it works....) and the overly dramatic story of failure and loss, I am aware that ‘ordinary’ doesn’t sit anywhere in either of these stories. Both stories overreach in their way. My fellow travellers keep me on course. Entrepreneur or publican, full time parent or business leader, accountant or poet, healer or administrator – or any combination of these- we sit cheek by jowl, muddling through life, inquiring, reflecting and seeing ourselves in all our ordinariness ... and therefore in our power. I have known and admired many ‘leaders’ in my past, whether in the school playground or in my place of work, and there has always been a mystique there. I have seen in them some sort of quality that I apparently don’t have, some sort of lack in myself that means I am not like them. I see difference. This has usually had the effect of distancing me from myself, from my uniqueness and power, and at the same time making we want to overreach, to be like them – or at least to be close to them and walk in their funk perhaps. While we need leaders who can inspire confidence and, well, lead I suppose, we also need to find the leader in every one of us. So the person whose light shines too bright, the leader who relies too much on mystique and charisma, has the ultimate effect of distancing others from their own power. The leader who uses their own ordinariness to show others how to shine, in the end spreads their light more effectively. I think it is more productive (and more fun) to learn to love and revere the ordinary, to seek it and appreciate it daily, than to be moulded by fear and cautionary tales. The terrifying images of Struwwelpeter come to mind. Effective? Maybe. Empowering? Not at all! And, if on occasion you forget to love the ordinary and accidentally lose yourself in the forest of your own glory, you can be sure that life will remind you and give you the opportunity to retire to the dark cave and reflect in clear waters before you set out to lose yourself again. .
Lost Lost, You came to me. And full of terror and remorse You told me how it came to be That you had lost yourself. Somewhere, in a wood, Filled with trees clothed in leaves Turned golden with your glory You lost yourself. You travelled through the wood And looked beyond, To a silver orb hanging in the sky, And as you watched a bridge appeared Writhing with moonlit lizards Gently whispering promises of immortality. You wanted to wear the sky as a cloak With the sun as a clasp, You wanted to make them gasp in awe As they saw your terrible beauty Set off by a sunless sky. You believed in the dream. And now when I return you to To the dark cave beyond time and paradise Where your journey began. And you can reflect your thoughts In the clear water Until it clouds And the dream fades As you forget, And set our once again to lose yourself
Cover image and poem by Jessica Begg