The Sunday Salon: In Celebration of the Ordinary

I’m celebrating an ordinary day on this summer Sunday.

Girl in a Hammock, Winslow Homer

With nothing on my calendar this weekend, I’m happily languishing in my leisure like I would a hot bubble bath on a cold winter day. I spent much of yesterday morning on the back porch, finishing Nicole Bernier’s novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. After lunch, with the mercury hovering near 90 degrees, I traded the back porch chair for the living room sofa, where I spent a good part of the afternoon with the latest Bess Crawford mystery, An Unmarked Grave.

I love an ordinary day above all else. Puttering around the house, reading, playing with the dogs, trying a new recipe for dinner  – that’s my idea of a good time. Sounds boring to some, but for me it’s heaven on earth. Simple, ordinary pleasures. I don’t take them for granted, because I don’t always have time to indulge in them or appreciate them.

There has been some recent media coverage in celebration of the ordinary, especially in terms of the expectations we place on our young people. Earlier this week I read an article in Newsweek by David McCullough Jr., whose recent commencement speech to the graduates of Wellsley High School has caused something of a kerfluffle. “You’re not that special,” he told those high school seniors who were all poised to take the world by the tail and shake it.

You see, if everyone is special, than no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another – which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality – we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.

What McCullough was trying to say is that no one of us is more “special” than the next. We each have gifts to offer, and they don’t all have to revolve around the highest SAT scores or the championship trophy. It’s perfectly okay to live an ordinary life, have an ordinary family, raise ordinary children. He’s right when he says that “loving accolades more than genuine achievement” is detrimental to the welfare of our society. Our ultimate achievement lies not in honors or awards – monetary or otherwise – but in fulfilling our own measure of happiness with a spirit of selflessness and empathy.

McCullough’s remarks at that commencement have made him rather famous. I wonder if parents are getting tired of this relentless responsibility they’ve undertaken in recent generations, this unceasing process of making sure their offspring’s “specialness” is rewarded. This demand to insure that children are poised to achieve their ultimate best leads families into all sorts of frantic activities, almost from the time a child is born. It’s not enough now to make sure kids are fed, clothed, healthy and well mannered. Nope,  they also have to be in the 95% percentile in every subject, all while learning soccer, improvisational dance, horseback riding, and Chinese. That’s a huge burden for parents who are embroiled in their own version of the 21st Century Ultimate Achievers Pageant.

Makes me exhausted just thinking about it.

It’s so much nicer to lay back in the summer sun with a good book and a glass of lemonade. I may not get famous doing it, but that’s alright. I’ll just revel in my ordinary old happiness.

That’s plenty special enough for me.

* For Further Reading:

Redefining Success and Celebrating the Unremarkable, New York Times, Business Day, June 29, 2012

The ‘Busy Trap,” by Tim Kreider, an OpEd piece in The New York Times, July 1, 2012

My friend Beth Kephart talks about extricating herself from the busy-ness trap today, too

The Sunday Salon.com

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7 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: In Celebration of the Ordinary

  1. After a life time of running round to timetables created not only by others but also, if I’m honest, by myself, a few ordinary days are my idea of total bliss. At the moment, I’ve got my eyes firmly fixed on next Thursday and Friday when I am going to be ordinary for a whole 48 hours together!

  2. You and I are always thinking about the same things. I truly hope, Becca, that we have time for lemonade some day, or a long walk in a park.

    That’s my friend Katrina Kenison being featured in the Times, by the way. It made me happy to see her there.

    • I just abhor the kind of constant pressure children are under these days. My son would never stand for it, even as a youngster. He spent so much time doing his own thing..writing and drawing and making videos and audio recordings. He was always busy, but in his own chosen ways, and was not interested in doing otherwise!
      I must read your book about this subject. I love Kenison’s book. Wish it had been around when I was raising my son 🙂

  3. Thank goodness for some common sense in academia – McCullough’s remarks have certainly caused a stir but he’s right to highlight the problem. Giving every child who runs a race at school sport’s day, doesn’t prepare them for some of the times later in their life when they won’t be successful. So what happens to their self esteem then?

  4. This is such a good post. I’m on the same page with you on this one. You’ve expressed it perfectly. I always wonder if the effort required to turn out a “special” kid is as much of a strain on the family as it appears to be – both emotionally and financially. Kids are scheduled near to death nowadays, and Dads must have to make extra braces for shelves to hold all those trophies. Give me an ordinary kid who’s given the tools to follow his course, and I’ll give you a successful adult.

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