I like a perfectly shaped tree all dressed up for Christmas, wrapped in lights and spangles, gold star atop its head, pretending to be indifferent to all of the gifts strewn at its feet. A tree like that gets my attention; it probably gets your attention, too. When you’re the only tree in the room, you shine in an extraordinary way.
I like Christmas trees; I even admire them. But the trees I love don’t stand around in people’s living rooms doing their best to call attention to themselves. The trees I love live in groves and glades and forests. You can hardly tell one from another. They are ordinary trees, living and dying where they were planted but so full of beauty that if you took the time to learn the history of what they have seen and known and endured, your heart would break with either joy or sorrow, or more likely, both.
Ordinary trees sparkle sunlight across our paths; spend their lives scattering their strength to raise up new generations of trees; nurture winged delight; throw out shadows like carpets, inviting us to stop and rest awhile; whisper truth to those with ears to hear; take our breath away and then give it back. They do this every day, whether anyone notices or not.
Popular American culture values the extraordinary, at least that’s the message I hear. Ordinary is not good enough. You must be smarter, more beautiful, or more athletic than everyone else. You must write better, or be funnier, or take better pictures than other people. If you don’t, you won’t stand out, you won’t be somebody, people won’t know your name or be able to pick you out from a crowd. You will have to wander through life without the only prefix that matters, “extra.” Maybe because extra is rare, everybody wants it. People feel compelled to express their superiority, to trumpet their accomplishments, and to tell people over and over how extraordinary they are, thinking that by saying it often enough, the prefix will magically attach to their ordinary selves.
I appreciate and admire extraordinary people. I listen to their music, enjoy their art, read their books and poems, and enjoy the benefits of their research and inventions. I’ve even known a few I would call extraordinary, but maybe because I am an ordinary person, I like ordinary people best. If I were a tree, no one would choose me to be the centerpiece in a room of celebration. I look like a thousand other trees and even if you walked by me everyday, I doubt you would remember me or be able to pick me out. I am the small, asymmetric tree with the missing branches, standing over there in the northeast corner of the grove.
Twice in the last month, I have touched on this issue with two people who blog. A while back, I nominated ShimonZ of thehumanpicture for an award. He thanked me but asked to be excused from posting the award on his blog. With his permission, I am including some of what he wrote in response:
Thank you very much for nominating me…I have been nominated for a few awards, and I have tried as best I could to extricate myself without offending those who wished to be nice to me. I don’t want any prizes. I come from a different culture, in which people don’t walk around with medals on their chest, and it is usually an embarrassment to one of us, to get a prize or an award. For me, it is my reward that you read my blog from time to time, and respond here and there.
I like those words. Behind that simplicity, I believe there is a willingness to embrace being ordinary.
Then on the blog The Heartbreak of Invention, I read patricamj’s essay “Why Psychotherapy Doesn’t Work for You” and when I commented I said I thought she must be a good therapist because she seems like an ordinary person. As soon as I wrote that, I realized I needed to qualify it, so I added that I meant it as high praise. I did and I still do.
The world is full of ordinary things and ordinary people, and I am one of them. I read books and stories by famous writers who knock my socks off. Some of them are extraordinary people. But I am also left sockless by some of the ordinary people who write blogs: people like ShimonZ and patriciamj. They scatter patterns of light that brighten my day; offer shade if I need some rest; delight me with words that soar and sing; blind me with beauty, then teach me to see; whisper truth; take my breath away, and then give it back with laughter. And they do it every day, whether anyone notices or not.
That’s what ordinary people do.