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On Being Ordinary

By Rosalyn Eves

 

I know T.S. Eliot famously claimed that “April is the cruelest month,” but I think January could challenge April for the title.

Like its Roman namesake, Janus, January is definitely two-faced. It’s a time of endings and beginnings, of looking forward and looking back. It combines the promise of a new year with the distinct after-Christmas boredom and return to routine. And in January, it always feels like winter will never end.

I always find January a hard month to get through.

This year, in particular, I’m having a hard time confronting January. A big part of is because my birthday is next week. I’m going to be 35. I have to confront the fact that I’m not exactly “young” anymore. (I’m technically old enough to be the mother to my freshmen students).

And, in the Janus fashion of looking forward and backward, I find myself looking at a life (past and future) that is, in so many respects, very ordinary. Don’t get me wrong, I love my life. (Most of the time). It’s just—this isn’t the life I envisioned a lifetime ago, when I was seventeen. Then, I was sure I was going to do something profound.

I was going to be special.

But here’s the thing: I think my realization of my ordinariness is actually a good thing, hard as it may be to relinquish childhood dreams of greatness.

A couple of months ago, a wise woman in my ward observed that when we say we want to feel special, most of the time we really mean that we want to be better than other people. Her observation was a minor epiphany for me. I saw, in my own desire to be special, roots of insecurity and envy. According to Merriam Webster, to be special is to be:

1. distinguished by some unusual quality; especially : being in some way superior
2. held in particular esteem
3. readily distinguishable from others of the same category : unique

Accepting that I am, in fact, not special in this sense helps me see the world around me as God might see it, as a collection of individuals who all have individual—and equal—worth. I’m slowly learning to disentangle my own sense of value from a sense of superiority.

At this point, I think some of you would argue that we *are* special (cue Max Lucado’s famous story here). But I don’t think we’re special in the way the world understands it, because of some innate uniqueness or superiority. We are special because we are “designed for a particular purpose or occasion” (Merriam Webster’s final definition of “special”).

And we’re back at the two-faced Janus again. It’s possible to be special and ordinary—after all, what makes something ordinary is it’s very ubiquity. There’s nothing particularly unique or rare about being a child of God, but that identity invests all of us with infinite worth.

There’s a children’s story that I absolutely adore, M.M Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess. In it, a crotchety old fairy shows up at the christening of the seventh princess. She takes one look at all the fancy fairy wishes for the baby and says, “I’m going to give you something that will make you happier than all these falals and fripperies put together.

“You shall be ordinary!”

And for that princess, being ordinary is the key to extraordinary happiness. I hope that same is true for all of us.

How do you learn to take joy in an “ordinary” life?

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About Rosalyn Eves

(Prose Board) currently lives in Southern Utah with her husband and three small children, where she teaches writing part-time at the local university. She has a BA in English from BYU, and an MA and PhD (also in English) from Penn State. In her spare time (what's that?) she likes to read, write, try new recipes (as long as she doesn't have to clean up), watch movies with her husband (British period drama is her favorite), go for walks, and generally avoid anything that resembles housework. Her first novel comes out Spring 2017 from Knopf.

22 thoughts on “On Being Ordinary”

  1. It's funny, I've always wished for an ordinary life. My plan was always to be a wife and stay at home mom; I never had dreams of becoming rich and famous or of saving the world. I've been single a lot longer than expected, and while my life is in most ways still pretty ordinary, it's ordinary in ways that are different from what I anticipated.

    I am a planner at heart, so having something to plan – no matter how small – usually gives me something to focus on and look forward to.

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  2. Oh, THANK YOU for this! This is exactly what I needed to hear.

    I recently left a high-powered, fast-paced, well-respected position to stay at home with my 3 year old, who has been battling health issues. After months of struggling to shuffle our little sickie between my office and my husband's, between my schedule and his, I fell into an exasperated heap and turned in my resignation. It was excruciating. As much as I wanted to pretend it wasn't, it WAS. It hurt. I loved my job. I loved being the youngest and only female manager in my organization. I loved the quick thinking, the intellectual conversation, the push of it all. But, my family was suffering. My six year old was angry all the time, and my three year old had spent one too many afternoons curled up under my desk at work while I scrambled frantically to finish.one.more.thing before I took her home. My husband was tired of coming home to chaos (both mental and physical), and though we had hired a housekeeper and lawn guy and part-time babysitters, it just wasn't working. I gave up the one thing that made me feel "special" and "respected" and tied on the apron. I became what I swore I would never be–a stay-at-homer.

    That was six months ago. It's been a hard transition. Hard because they hired someone to replace me, and I realized I was not as indispensible as I had thought. Hard because I went from a position of respect and a six figure income to cooking and cleaning and afternoons at the park. I've struggled to feel "special" in my new role as housewife and stay-at-home mom. So, when I read your words this morning, they were so right-on they stung.

    I know that the role of mother and wife is a sacred one. I know that who I am is much less important than WHOSE I am. But, when measuring with the world's yard stick, it's easy to fall into the trap of determining our value and worth and "uniqueness" by what they see in us. I am learning to be peaceful, to be patient, to "be still and know" that He is in control, and that I will be blessed when I choose to follow His path for my life. My husband and I had a clear testimony regarding me leaving my job, so why should I question it? I believe (and your post confirms it) that embracing the "ordinary" means allowing there to be less of ME and my selfish ambition, and more of HIM and His infinite wisdom and direction in my life. It means peace. It means contentedness. And it means embracing another definition of "special." I love the idea that I was created for a unique and specific purpose, and that, in this season of my life, Mom is that purpose.

    Thank you, again. I am encouraged today.

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  3. @Amira–yes, I love that book!

    @Melanie–I'm a planner too. I like the idea of looking forward to small moments.

    @Julie–comments like this always humble me. I'm continually amazed at how God can use inspiration to make small messages into something larger for the person who needs them. And I have to say that I've been there, too. When I finished my PhD, all my grad school friends went on to big universities for full time work–and I stayed home with my kids. I teach part-time at the local university, but this is a far cry from the "important" position I thought I'd have. It *is* hard for some women to stay home (especially when there are other alternatives)–something I wish we acknowledged more–but I also think it can be the right decision for many of us.

    For me, I think it's also about recognizing that *everyone* has value–something I have a hard time doing if I focus too much on trying (or wanting) to feel special.

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  4. I spent my whole life wishing I were special because I wanted to be better than everyone else. But now I'm like you, realizing that everyone is special and how lovely that is. Although it sounds kind of Mr. Rogers to say that!

    Also, January is bad but I really hate February.

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  5. I just watched "The World's Fastest Indian" the other night. After it was over I was talking to my husband about how I don't think I've ever been that passionate about anything. The man in the movie was sooo into his motorcycle and it was a great movie to watch. My husband reminded me that he did that to the downfall of many other things in his life. That I was passionate about something: my family. I guess he's right.

    Looking back to my teen years, when all I wanted to be was a famous fashion designer, I could not see the woman I would be happy to become. I am a lioness when it comes to my family. I want to make my family life a success. Whatever that looks like. Obviously some days are better than others. I just want my kids to love each other and find their own happiness. And I want to be willing and have a Christlike openness to accept where they find that happiness.

    Thank you for this today. Ordinary is what I will strive for from now on. I like that.

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  6. I had to google Max Lucado and "special" to see what you were referring to. I found this video of the book being read for any uninitiated. I'm not familiar with The Ordinary Princess, but will have to check it out, too.

    I think I'm fine with an ordinary life. As a child I concluded that being famous was the key to being happy, because then "everyone would like you" (little did I know!)

    As an adult I am grateful to NOT be famous. But I still think there is a desire in me to be special in a micro-kind-of-way…like something that those in my small sphere identify me with that is unique and special. I'm pretty sure it's connected to self-esteem and self-worth, so probably instead of focusing on some way to be important/special/unique, I'd be better off learning to embrace myself. That seems harder to figure out than defining myself through outward-accomplishments/traits…but I suspect that there is no outward accomplishment that could ever or will ever fill that inner void, so best to focus on what will actually work.

    January is a hard month for me, too…but I'm grateful this year it's been more sunny and mild than typical. Tender mercies.

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  7. Ah, but I disagree, you ARE extraordinary, Rosalyn. Look how you casually mention "my freshmen students" and quote literature and poetry. I've never met you but I'm sure I would love hearing your stories, watching your mothering.

    Honestly, I've never met anyone ordinary. Sorry for sounding like Pollyanna, but it's true. I like she-bop's goals a lot– "I want to make my family life a success. Whatever that looks like. Obviously some days are better than others. I just want my kids to love each other and find their own happiness. And I want to be willing and have a Christlike openness to accept where they find that happiness."

    I ached for recognition when my kids were little– am I going to sound annoying if I say motherhood just gets more and more fulfilling?

    p.s. 35 is young! Dr. Seuss wrote his first book at 56.

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  8. I think sometimes we confuse ordinariness with sameness. There is nothing, to my mind, laudatory about sameness, but ordinariness? Now that is a thing to be praised. Our ward right now is filled with a lot of young, very young people (some grandparents and a few like me, in the middle). It is easy to think that all the similarities are really sameness. But they're not. Some of our members struggle with this idea of special that hits us all at one time or another and complain about quiet callings where they are not fed (perhaps, not seen is what they're really saying?), not pampered. But then there are these fantastic members who revel in their ordinariness, who dig in with both hands and give their all. Like the nursery leader who is also Wolf leader to 17 8 yr old boys, who also brings an entire minivan of neighbors, investigators and friends of the church to church, to scouts, to all activities every single week. She home schools her four children, including one ASD child, she carves these beautiful HP wands for children all over and she loves, just loves everyone around her. Her husband is the same way. Their family is the height of ordinary. But they are spectacular.

    There is the high councilor in our ward who works for the phone company in an ordinary job that pays the bills. He is quiet and unassuming, unless you sit next to him in Sunday School and find he has a wicked sense of humor, all while throwing out insightful comments throughout the lesson. But the most spectacular thing about him is his understanding and command of the priesthood. He KNOWS it is the power of God he bears and his blessings, his talks, his very bearing show that power, share that faith and that sweet understanding. He calls miracles from heaven. He bears the same ordinary priesthood all worthy men of our church have the privilege to bear, but in him, it is spectacular.

    I fight with the idea of wanting to be special, but really I think it is the idea that I want to be seen. So much of motherhood is unseen, unending, unfinishable work. It is ordinary. I am ordinary. But I find the more I try to see, to find the spectacular in the profoundly ordinary around me, the more seen I feel.

    I am an attorney by training, though I closed my practice 4 years ago with the birth of our fifth child. Once I had authorial delusions and even got a few rejection letters from Sheri Dew at Deseret Book. My current efforts in finding joy in being ordinary come in making myself mention nothing unusual about myself in introductions, on forms, etc. I'm trying to feel used and peaceful in my current calling as "official last minute Primary substitute" and not too wistful about my time as Gospel Doctrine teacher. I'm trying to spread glory in being a SAHM and in the process remind myself to feel it a little.

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  9. @Jennie–I think learning to recognize those qualities in others is a big step towards being more accepting.

    @she-bop–I love the idea of striving for ordinariness!

    @blue–yes, I think there's certainly a strong element of self-acceptance in embracing your life.

    @Michelle–I wasn't necessarily looking for validation, but thank you! I appreciate the kind words. Sometimes I think as women we see our own flaws so clearly it's hard to see anything particularly "special" about our lives. For me, accepting that I'm ordinary is actually liberating, because it means I can let go of unnecessary expectations.

    @angie–I think you're right. We do want to be seen. But I'm not sure that's a desire we can ever fill, so I agree, learning to see the extraordinary in the ordinary is a much more valuable gift.

    Also, I don't know about "authorial delusions." I think I still have those. 🙂 I like Michelle's reminder about Dr. Suess–I can give myself twenty years. Plus, I recently heard a pair of published authors (Mette Harrison and Rick Walton) say that the only real thing that determines authorial potential is persistence–everyone they know who has wanted to publish who's kept at it long enough eventually has.

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  10. I loved this post. I wish I had time to type out a bunch of thoughts about it. I loved what that woman in your ward said about being special–that usually it means being better than someone else. She's so right. I've thought a lot about our individual uniqueness–I mean, we're ALL children of God so we're not unique in that way but truly, there never has been and never will be someone just like us. I have felt for awhile that it is a rolling loss to the universe if even one of us does not fill the measure of our creation-b/c that loss can never be completely filled by anyone else. Make sense? You've given me A LOT to think about.

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  11. @Roslyn: "For me, I think it’s also about recognizing that *everyone* has value–something I have a hard time doing if I focus too much on trying (or wanting) to feel special."

    Oh, I'm tearfully convicted by this statement! So much truth here! Everyone's calling is an important one. God knows the desires of my heart; he understands the longing I have to be useful. In his infinite wisdom he has called me to this position at this time–and he will fulfill and sustain me in it.

    I don't mean to hijack your beautiful piece with my personal revelations–I'm just thankful I came upon it today. Heavenly Father sees us where we are. Thank you for sharing.

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  12. I thought I'd given up aspiring to be special awhile ago–after reading an article about a Rhodes Scholar and realizing that I was never going to be that (I was married with four or five kids at the time–I'm quick like that sometimes ;)). After coming to grips with the fact (again) that my life's work would in all likelihood be largely taken up with rearing my children and not creating great art or literary masterpieces, I was fine and I've thrown myself heart and soul into what I'm doing now–rearing a family. But even identifying yourself with your family can catch you up. One of my kids has been in a really hard phase for a few years–and I don't handle it very gracefully usually. I realized last night (after another not very graceful episode by me) that there is a lot wrapped up in my reactions to this child's behavior, not least of which is the idea I've picked up from somewhere that if he does not behave how I want that it is a reflection on me–or on my facade of myself as "special"–and that bites. I guess it's been so unbearable to me to deal with the idea that his failures might signal MY failure that I've tended to try and "make" him be how I need him to be so I can see myself (as his parent) in a better light. The thing (besides my own sorrow and humility) that brought me to my senses on this was a photo of a friend's husband with his son. The son is fairly young but two year's divorced and having a hard time. The father took an entire summer off to fish with his boy. I realized that instead of freaking out, the dad was quietly supporting and lifting his child until he managed to put his life back together–when he was ready, whenever that might be with no strings attached and no worry about how it might be reflecting on him as the father. Figuring this out was a huge watershed for me. I'm so grateful for it. Once again I'm realizing that there is already so much going on in each of us that to artificially seek for external validation of our own "specialness", however we go about that search is probably always a mistake. If it comes of it's own accord b/c it is passion we have, that is one thing. To try and distinguish ourselves above others for the sake of that distinguishment is quite another.

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  13. I absolutely needed to hear this today – thank you! As a new stay-at-homer I'm constantly trying to evaluate what makes a day a 'success', in the absence of deadlines and meetings to tell me so. I am fierce about giving everything to mothering our little boy, and love being at home with him, but keep trying to balance that with holding onto my own talents and interests. I'm still not sure where the line is between fostering things that make you yourself (I keep doggedly writing, for example, even though it isn't often convenient) and becoming too wrapped up in your own interests to mother completely.

    This comment rang so true to me: 'I know that the role of mother and wife is a sacred one. I know that who I am is much less important than WHOSE I am.' And it strikes me that I belong not only to God but more particularly to my husband and son. I'm still working it out, but your post really helped.

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  14. Michelle L.- I whole heartedly agree- motherhood does get more and more rewarding and I agree that no one is ordinary. I would say that there are things about us that are ordinary or average, but a person is more than just the sum of their parts. There might be 'ordinary' parts to each of us, but everyone has some parts to them that are just them. And I loved the comment from the sister who thought she would have an 'ordinary' life as a wife, SAHM, etc, but doesn't. We should be careful to remember that our ordinary is someone's elses dream life.

    When I read posts like this, my first thought is, how can I make the women I know feel special, if that's what we really need? I think its all about time, and giving love. I can help others feel special in their ordinary lives by letting them know that they are special in my life…. sounds corny and typical, but I think there is truth there, too.

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  15. Thanks for this post. I agree, January is rough. I've struggled with similar feelings, often thinking that I should have made so much more progress (as it is conceived in the worldly sense of the term) by now. But we're all "works in progress," and part of discovering the ways in which Heavenly Father believes we are "special." Your post reminds me of this excerpt from Elder Marvin J. Ashton's "There Are Many Gifts" (Ensign, Nov. 1987):

    From the Book of Mormon, particularly 3 Nephi, chapters 11 through 26 [3 Ne. 11–26], when the Savior Jesus Christ showed himself to the people on the American continent, many gifts are referred to as being very real and most useful. Taken at random, let me mention a few gifts that are not always evident or noteworthy but that are very important. Among these may be your gifts—gifts not so evident but nevertheless real and valuable.

    Let us review some of these less-conspicuous gifts: the gift of asking; the gift of listening; the gift of hearing and using a still, small voice; the gift of being able to weep; the gift of avoiding contention; the gift of being agreeable; the gift of avoiding vain repetition; the gift of seeking that which is righteous; the gift of not passing judgment; the gift of looking to God for guidance; the gift of being a disciple; the gift of caring for others; the gift of being able to ponder; the gift of offering prayer; the gift of bearing a mighty testimony; and the gift of receiving the Holy Ghost.

    And, as we know, but often forget, “To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby” (D&C 46:11–12).

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, as you have clearly demonstrated "special" spiritual gifts that have inspired your readers.

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  16. Julie, I loved this part of your comment, "I believe (and your post confirms it) that embracing the “ordinary” means allowing there to be less of ME and my selfish ambition, and more of HIM and His infinite wisdom and direction in my life. It means peace. It means contentedness."

    I'm on the opposite side of your struggle. I've had to stop being a stay-at-home mother and return to the workforce. My job is certainly a blessing, but it is not exciting or glamourous or something I feel passionate about. I keep wondering why I had to leave my kids and now do THIS. But, I too know the Lord has led me along this path and that there is much to be thankful for in what I have (a paycheck, benefits, flexibility) if I can stop being selfish and remember He is in charge.

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  17. I feel bad when someone poses a question here and I want to comment but may not want to answer the question. However, I do like ordinary part of lives. Sweet routines and rhythms. I think I am more in the thinking of Mark Twain who said there is no such thing as an ordinary life as each life is a tragedy, comedy and drama.

    I have worked on a poem on and off in my head about being special and don't remember much of what I said as I never wrote it down, but I am going to try.

    Some people say that it is not possible to say that everyone is special as the very saying of it takes away the meaning of special. Special, after all, is something that sets one apart from the others.

    Yet, I profess that everyone is special.

    I'm not sure if it is is a micro sense or a macro sense. I am not sure of the ratio of what makes us unique to what innate special qualities are universal to each and every person because of their being alive and the contrast of life to that which is inanimate. The ability to think, to chose, to feel, to act makes us special.

    I am not sure how much of our being special comes from the Divine within us. Wherever we shall end up in the next life and whatever the uniqueness of our purpose in life, we all have such potential whether all of it will ever be realized or not. We are special by virtue of potential. We are special because we can work towards that potential and partner with God to help reach our potential.

    What is special? I define it broadly and narrowly. God with his eye on the sparrow sees you and knows every way that you are special. And you are special.

    (This is different than what I wrote in my head in some ways but some of the elements are there).

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  18. I have struggled with this in my current ward. Long story short, I think you can sometimes interchange the need to feel "special" with the need to feel "known." I think that wanting to be set apart, or above, is part of a desire to be known.

    Having others recognize and acknowledge who we really are as individuals, with unique skills, strengths, and life experiences is a deep human need. I think that feeling known (not famous, just connected to your circle of supporters) is sometimes the hole to be filled.

    Which is a great realization to make, because I CAN do a lot to listen to, acknowledge, and know those around me. I can help fill that hole for someone else by reflecting their individual worth. It is sometimes through reflection that we see ourselves more clearly.

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  19. This morning I came across a general conference talk by Elder Maxwell ("Repentance", Oct. 1991) that returned my thoughts to this Segullah article. I, too, struggle with wanting to be special, and yet "belong to the group" at the same time. This quote from his talk gives me much to think about:
    "…there is more individuality in those who are more holy.

    Sin, on the other hand, brings sameness; it shrinks us to addictive appetites and insubordinate impulses. For a brief surging, selfish moment, sin may create the illusion of individuality, but only as in the grunting, galloping Gadarene swine! (See Matt. 8:28–32.)"

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