In Defense of the Ordinary

8 mins read

Recently, during one of my too-many-times-a-day Twitter procrastination scrolls, I stumbled across a poem. I immediately screenshotted it and sent it to a few friends because it struck a nerve with me. The poem, by William Martin, is called “Do not ask your children to strive.” Martin writes: 

Do not ask your children 

to strive for extraordinary lives. 

Such striving may be admirable 

but it is the way of foolishness. 

Help them instead to find the wonder 

and the marvel of an ordinary life. 

Show them the joy of tasting 

tomatoes, apples, and pears.

Show them how to cry 

when pets and people die. 

Show them the infinite pleasure 

in the touch of a hand. 

And make the ordinary come alive for them. 

The extraordinary will take care of itself. 

As I rapidly careen towards my honors exams and graduation, I’ve been thinking a lot about my goals and priorities. Last week, someone asked me what I saw if I imagined myself in the future, feeling happy and safe. What made this thought experiment especially hard was that my sense of trust in the future was shattered during the pandemic. It’s so hard to imagine things going well when, at every turn for the past two years, my best-laid plans have been completely derailed. 

Unfortunately, my best-laid plans are usually laid out really, really well, and have always been. My mom often tells a story of me at my preschool dropoff, when I’d explained to my teacher my vision for the trajectory of my life from Pre-K up until college. In general, I don’t like uncertainty, so I lay out plans until I feel like I know what to expect. I am definitely a striver. I work hard not only because I like the gratification of it, but also because I enjoy the idea that every long day and unfinished to-do list are creeping towards something extraordinary.

 Imagine my surprise when, on a routine walk to Sharples, it hit me that my deepest and most fragile dreams for the future were ordinary. If I imagine a perfect day twenty years from now, I imagine quiet luxuries. Long dinners with loved ones, our conversations stretching late into the night. Weekend mornings, reading in a sunlit room. All of these dreams are beautifully mundane and yet searingly happy. 

To be clear, it’s not that I don’t want to be extraordinary anymore. In fact, it’s the opposite, and it has been for as long as I can remember. When I was in 3rd grade, I wore a notebook on a string around my neck so I could write down ideas I had about how to make the world a better place. Most of the time, I still have that same momentum. Despite the overwhelmingness that it brings, I like accomplishing things. I am most fulfilled accomplishing things that are complicated and meaningful. I love my big, long-shot dreams. I want to do things in my career and my personal life that are impactful and consequential. I want to change how people think about the world and tangibly improve lives. When I’m tired and bored of studying, these dreams help me regain purpose. 

Lately, though, I’ve sometimes felt adrift. I’ve had “Nothing New” by Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers on blast since it came out in November (“Lord what will become of me, once I’ve lost my novelty …”). Sometimes I crave the extraordinary so much that it terrifies me. A journal entry from my plane ride back to campus starts with a list of fears too raw to be given the dignity of full sentences: “setting myself up for drudgery/misery/some life that moves without me.” I’m taking three credits of honors classes this semester, and although I’m interested in the material, I’ve found myself distractedly longing for a fun, relaxed senior spring. These feelings have caused me a lot of guilt and internal turmoil; I knew when I made my sophomore plan that I wouldn’t have a carefree senior spring, but it was supposed to be worth it. Why does it feel so much more complicated? 

The pandemic is an obvious but legitimate culprit. As soon as classes moved online in Spring 2020, I remember telling people that online classes felt like everything draining about school had been amplified while everything fun about it had been diminished. For the last two years, everyone missed out on so many joyful, yet mundane interactions, from casual conversations with a classmate when you both show up early to spontaneous lunch plans with an old friend. Of course, I feel starved for those moments. Of course, my attention span feels frayed. Trying to keep moving forward since March 2020 has been draining. Now that those ordinary moments feel a little more within reach, I want them for as long as I can have them. 

It’s scary to imagine these ordinary joys in the future because I know how quickly and easily I can lose them. I don’t know how to make that fear go away because the past few years have shown it is a real, justifiable fea. I certainly haven’t figured out how to balance it all. My desire to soak in the fleeting, ordinary delights of college is constantly at odds with my desire to accomplish magnificent things. I hope, though, that I can remember William Martin’s words when I’m at my most frazzled. Perhaps, if we give ourselves permission to revel in the ordinary, the extraordinary will take care of itself. 

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for reminding me that the ordinary can be just as satisfying as the dreams. Really appreciated what you had to say and share #slay.

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