Sil on Ordinariness

IMG_7022On Sunday, my wife Priscilla preached on a fascinating topic: Ordinariness.

Drawing from some ‘incidental’ moments from Jesus’ encounters with people in the Gospel of Luke, she spoke about the fact so much energy in our society is expressed in trying to be better, unique or interesting; a sign that so many of us actually feel quite ordinary.

And also how so many stories celebrated in church are of radical and dramatic life-changes, whereas our life and experiences of love to others is often unexciting and repetitive, indeed necessarily so.

She drew on the great quote from CS Lewis, from his sermon The Weight of Glory:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses…”.

She concluded that no Christian act is ordinary. And that, paradoxically, it takes extraordinary wisdom to embrace the ordinary things of life with faithfulness.

It got me thinking about this fascinating internal desire to be, or appear, extraordinary.

The people whom history anoints as extraordinary do not seem to have sought ‘extrordinariness’ as an end in itself.

They’re generally the ones who have served a particular cause with such diligence and sacrifice as to have almost embodied the cause itself, often at huge personal cost.

It’s rarely about a quick or grand gesture, but rather a tenacity, a willingness to not be distracted by mere short-term opportunities for fame or glory. (Fame being quite a common, ordinary ambition).

Nelson Mandela is an obvious example. He didn’t spend 28 years building a platform, trying to become extraordinary. He spent it in jail, subsumed within the cause, a servant to it. That is quite extraordinary.

There’s not many things more tiring that someone trying to appear extraordinary.

The great paradox of the matter, however, is that any personal desire to be extraordinary is a self-defeating ambition.

There’s nothing more ordinary than a person seeking to be extraordinary.

And trying to be extraordinary means avoiding things which are ordinary, which generally leads to avoiding certain people because they are ordinary. A hideous ambition.

And when we reach out to embody our own preconceived idea of what extraordinary looks like, it often consisting of surprisingly cliche status symbols of some form or another.

Our culture is really quite predictable in mapping out all of these things, and our vision of ‘extraordinariness’ is generally guided by whatever popular culture says is success. It’s all pretty unbearably similar.

So often, trying to be extraordinary is actually an exercise in imitation, not creativity.

In the self conscious attempt to reach beyond, we blend.

And indeed the truly extraordinary things about a person is often hidden behind their desperate shiny attempts at appearing special.

CS Lewis has a great few lines on this too, perhaps his greatest passage ever:

Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. 

The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorites wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ, and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.