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Ordinary People

Yesterday my eight year old told me that he didn’t want to go to college. “Too much reading,” he said. “You might change your mind,” I said. He told me he doubted it. I told him that whatever work he did, as long as he was honest, and worked hard, and believed he was honoring […]

Yesterday my eight year old told me that he didn’t want to go to college. “Too much reading,” he said.

“You might change your mind,” I said.

He told me he doubted it. I told him that whatever work he did, as long as he was honest, and worked hard, and believed he was honoring God by his work, that was fine with me. I added that his grandfather (my dad) felt bad about the fact that he wanted to go to a trade school and learn how to work with his hands, which he enjoyed more than anything, but he went to college because his parents expected him to. He ended up “chained to a desk,” as he puts it today, for 20 years or so in his career as a public health officer — this because he didn’t have the courage to stand up to his parents as a young man, and follow his own calling.

“I think I want to work at a grocery store stocking the shelves, or maybe run a pet shop,” my kid said.

That could work, I said, but here’s the problem: you have to make sure that you can support yourself and your family on your salary. “Maybe you could do that on a pet shop manager’s salary,” I said. “But you probably couldn’t do it with the paycheck you would make stocking shelves at the grocery store.”

The important thing, I said, is to do your best to do what you love, as long as you can provide for yourself and your family with that career. “Aunt Ruthie chose to be a schoolteacher,” I told him. “She never made much money, because schoolteachers aren’t paid a lot. But she made enough to take care of her family, and she was happy, and she changed a lot of people’s lives for the better. You should never do a job that you hate, or that’s not good for you or for other people, just because you get a lot of money at it.”

“I would never do that,” he said.

Later on, a reader of this blog passed along an essay from The New York Times in which the author contends that we Americans are making ourselves miserable with our unrealistic idea of what “success” means. Excerpt:

Madeline Levine, a psychologist, said that for baby boomers, “the notion of being special is in our blood.” She added: “How could our children be anything but? And future generations kept building on that.”

More recently, parents seem to be increasingly anxious that there just isn’t going to be enough — enough room at good colleges or graduate schools or the top companies — for even the straight-A, piano-playing quarterback, and we end up convinced that being average will doom our children to a life that will fall far short of what we want for them. As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work and author of the book “The Gifts of Imperfection” (Hazelden, 2010) said, “In this world, an ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life.”

And that’s a problem. Because “extraordinary is often what the general public views as success,” said Jeff Snipes, co-founder of PDI Ninth House, a corporate leadership consulting firm. “You make a lot of money or have athletic success. That’s a very, very narrow definition. What about being compassionate or living a life of integrity?”


Ms. Levine said she was once scheduled to give a talk on parenting the average child at a school in Marin County, Calif. Although she usually packs in the audiences, not one person showed up.

Not one person! That says something about us, doesn’t it? The column goes on:

“It’s a value I have to choose again and again, as is true with all of us,” said Katrina Kenison, author of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” (Grand Central Publishing, 2009). “My job as a mother is not to get my son in the top college, but to enjoy ordinary life. To swim in a pond on a hot day or walk with a friend or make dinner from scratch.”

As Ms. Kenison said, one of the most important conversations we can have with our children is what we mean by success.

“Ordinary has a bad rap, and so does settling — there is the idea is that we should always want more,” she said. “But there’s a beauty in cultivating an appreciation for what we already have.”

That is perhaps the main lesson I learned in contemplating and writing about my sister Ruthie’s story: the great and overlooked value in an ordinary life well lived. It would be a mistake to assume that her life was about “settling” for anything. She believed in academic achievement, for example, and she had high moral standards for herself and her children. The difference is how she defined greatness. It had nothing at all to do with money or fame. It was all about how you treat other people, being grateful for what you have, and doing your duty to God and to others.

Ruthie and I didn’t see eye to eye on everything, but she was more right than wrong about this issue — and that was what I came to see in the light of her dying, and her death. It’s what I hope to convey to readers of “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” of course, and to my own children.

Last October, I blogged about Louisiana and mediocrity, beginning by quoting a Louisiana expatriate friend who lives in DC and works in politics:

I was talking with a friend in DC not long ago (another Southern expat), and we agreed that people from Louisiana, like nowhere else, have the best understanding of “the good life.” It’s OK to be average there – to go to work each day, come home, have a beer, and love your family and friends. One thing that really sucks about DC is that everyone here very seriously carries the burden of having to Change The World.

I added:

Louisiana is a place where it’s easy to be frustrated, if you’re ambitious, or even if you have the perfectly reasonable expectation that things are supposed to work rationally. You can’t really romanticize these severe problems away. But also easy to be happy if you adjust those expectations of daily life, and of your life in general. I wrote in this space (hereherehere,here, and here) during our recent trip to St. Francisville to bury my sister about how moved I was by the outpouring of love and support from the community for my sister’s family during their time of trial — not only in Ruthie’s death, but throughout her entire 19-month struggle with cancer. The communal solidarity was astonishing, even a revelation to me. I mean, I knew I came from a good place, but I had not appreciated before how much I needed to be in a place like this. People are so easy to be with. They’re happy to see you come, and sorry to see you go. Mr. Ronnie has decided it might be a good night to make a gumbo at his camp on the creek, and wants to know if y’all want to come over? Just pick up a couple of six packs of beer and head down there, and sit on the front porch and drink and eat and and laugh and tell stories. That’s all. But that’s everything. Do you see? To be freed from the felt burden of having to Change the World, of having to get ahead, of having to think of your life in terms of achieve, achieve, achieve – it’s an unusual thing. You can be only okay in Louisiana, or maybe even something of a mess, and they’ll love you anyway, as long as you can laugh at yourself and at life, and know how to sit on the front porch, so to speak, and pass a good time.

That can look like giving up on excellence, or accepting mediocrity. But it can also look like a basic stance of gratitude for life, and the wisdom of taking honest pleasure in ordinary things. That is mighty countercultural in our country these days. We can’t all become rich or famous. But learning to love the everyday, in all its limitations, is something we can all achieve — but to do so, we have to fight back against the way our popular culture programs us.



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