A while back I came across a blog called “Glory to God for All Things”, written by Fr. Stephen Freeman. One particular post stood out to me, titled Simply Living. In it Fr Freeman reflects on 55 Maxims written by a Fr Thomas Hopko. These 55 maxims or rules seemed to me to be so simple, so practical, and so wise that I printed them out and hung them on the wall above my desk. I look at them each day and try to really focus on one or two during my morning prayers. Some of my favorites; (1) Live a day, and part of a day at a time, (2) Pray as you can, not as you want, (3) Be merciful with yourself, and with others. But, there is one maxim that continues to catch my attention over and over again. Be an ordinary person.
My initial reaction to this was dubious. I’ve been told my whole life to be all that I can be, to never settle, and that I can be anything and anyone I want to be. We live in a culture that values those who distinguish themselves. We praise the achievers and the winners. There is a whole mythology in the U.S. about those people who refused to be ordinary, who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and made something of themselves. We don’t often praise the ordinary folks.
This eagerness in our culture to be the best, the wealthiest, the most in shape, the most creative, has a shadow side. When we find our value in our ability to distinguish ourselves from everyone else, we often begin to feel as though we simply are not good enough when we are unable to distinguish ourselves in the ways we expect. If success is being extraordinary, then the ordinary folks must be the ones who fail. This myth has created an epidemic of perfectionism.
As a perfectionist myself, I can attest to the overwhelming power of feeling not good enough, not worthy enough, not attractive enough, not smart enough, and a plethora of other lies. Brene Brown, the well-known shame and vulnerability researcher, has done a lot of work on perfectionism as well. In fact, her first book was called The Gifts of Imperfection. On her website’s blog she defines perfectionism as “…a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: ‘If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgement, and blame.’” *. This definition rings so true for my own experience. One of the things I have found with the help of my therapist, is that in my head lives a critic as odious as any small handed politician, who sits on my shoulders and whispers in my ear “Not good enough”. I have found that this critic of mine involves himself in every facet of my life, even criticizing the way I pray, or how I practice self-care. If I make a mistake at work, he tells me I’m bad at my job and everyone knows it. If I forget to call a friend or family member back, he’s sure to make it known that I am a bad friend, brother, son, or husband. If I don’t know something, or say something stupid, forget someone’s name, or fail to make it to the gym, this critic of mine will beat me down until I feel absolutely worthless.
This is where the wisdom of this maxim rings true; Be an ordinary person. For me it doesn’t mean don’t try or settle for mediocre. It is a reminder that I am ordinary in the way we all are. I am imperfect. I am not superhuman. I would not expect of another person the kind of perfection I expect for myself. Brene Brown gets at this by saying “Perfectionism is defeating and self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect” *. It simply doesn’t exist.
To be ordinary seems to me to be linked to the Benedictine value of humility. In The Rule Benedict asks the reader to consider Jacob’s ladder from Genesis, “…we must set up that ladder on which Jacob saw angels descending and ascending. Without doubt, this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility” **. Benedict then lays out the twelve steps of humility including finding contentment in the face of suffering, controlling one’s tongue and speaking modestly and gently. Obedience and accountability to the community, and manifesting “humility in his bearing, no less than in his heart, so that it is evident at the Work of God, in the oratory, the monastery or the garden, on a journey or in the field, or anywhere else” **. This identity of humility is what being an ordinary person looks like. It’s leaning into our imperfections, not so we can batter ourselves with shame, but so we can learn to be compassionate to ourselves and to others. Joan Chittister says it beautifully:
“Humility is simply a basic awareness of my relationship to the world and my connectedness to all its circumstances. It is the acceptance of relationships with others, not only for who they are but also for who I am. I do not interact with others to get something out of it; I make my way with all the others in my life because each of them has something important to call out of me, to support in me, to bring to fruit a vision of God in my life.” ***
As I have reflected on what it means to be ordinary, I have tried to discern what a practice of ordinary might look like. How can I embrace this identity in my daily life? For me, it begins with learning to be merciful to myself. When my critic rears his ugly head, I try to consider what I would say to my ten-year-old self. Would I ever let anyone talk to a child the way I let my critic talk to me? I’ve even been known to speak directly to my critic. I have found that anthropomorphizing my own critic gives me more freedom to shut him down. It becomes something I can observe, and something I can attack. I’m certain many people have observed me arguing out loud with my critic while stopped at a red light, or walking the dog. (This is where my critic wants me to feel embarrassed about arguing with him in public. I have two words for him.) I remind my critic that I am not perfect, that there is no such thing. I remind myself that I am loved, and that there is nothing in this world or the next that can separate me from that love. Once I can see this reality for myself, I can begin to see it clearly for those around me. I can affirm their belovedness and worthiness, in spite of and because of their imperfections. When I forget this, and when my critic sneaks in, I often repeat Matthew 17:5 “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased”. I keep repeating it until I can’t hear that stupid critic anymore. It’s the first rule of the internet; Do not feed the trolls.
To be ordinary is to simply be. Not as a way of resignation, but as a way of embracing that identity of Beloved and worthiness for ourselves and for others. To be ordinary means that we learn to practice an appreciation for the ways we have fallen, and for the ways we have gotten back up. It says to the other “I accept you as wholly and completely yourself, flaws and all”. It says to ourselves “I am worthy of love and of acceptance”. It tells that critic of ours to piss off, because we are enough. You are enough. Let us embrace our imperfections, our very humanity. Let us remember that we are loved not because we are perfect, or because of our achievements, we are loved simply because we are. Claim it, and know it, and let us be ordinary.
**Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.
***Chittister, Joan. Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.