And while it takes courage to achieve greatness, it takes more courage to find fulfillment in being ordinary.
- Marilyn Thomsen Thomsen
The greatest truths are simplest. Profound insights lurk in everyday occurrences. To discover them we need not trek to mountain tops or explore caves, but just open our ways of seeing by being aware that in the ordinary lies the extraordinary. Like nectar in a flower or oil in the infinitesimal mustard.
The Uncarved Stone Syndrome
I recently came across a simple stone bench in a manicured garden. It rested on bricks that acted as its legs and its naturalness caught my attention. Although it was a stark contrast to the artificiality of the surroundings, it did not call attention to itself or flaunt a standalone quality. Its utter simplicity and un-self-consciousness seemed intrinsic. Its essence permeated its entire be ing and stone seemed so aware and alive to the Presence within. The stone celebrated its ordinariness. Something stirred within me. In contrast, unlike the stone I camouflage myself through wearing myriad situation specific masks that distanced me further and further away from my essence and thereby from others too.
Paradoxically, as we move into a state of awareness and begin to peel away our centuries of masking, life become simpler and joyful. Benjamin Hoff in The Tao of Pooh writes about the wisdom of leaning from the ordinary every day events and occurrences that have hidden messages for our souls—the P'u or the Principle of the Uncarved Block.
"The essence of the Principle of the Uncarved Block is that is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoilt or lost when that simplicity is changed… From the state of the Uncarved Block comes the ability to enjoy the simple and the quiet, the natural and the plain. Along with that comes the ability to do thing as spontaneously and have them work, odd as it may appear to others at times," writes Hoff.
Hence it is hardly surprising that among the characters in this delightful Taoist fable, it is the bear Pooh with his simplicity and harmonious way of living who epitomizes the Taoist ideal of "going with the flow" in contrast to the intellectual Rabbit, Owl, or Eyeore (the donkey).
Seeking the Extraordinary
Ordinary. The word stems from the Latin ordinarius that means regular, normal, customary, boring or commonplace. It seems to me that we humans have a natural affinity to latch on to literal or denotative meanings of words. Like we have done with ordinary. If you ask any person to respond to the word ordinary, chances are that most often, they will react negatively to the O word. Few words have been as stigmatized and thereby the target of our discriminatory attitudes and prejudices as ordinary.
I often wonder why advertisements use celebrities with their halo of "extraordinariness" to peddle "ordinary" products used by "ordinary" consumers! Or ads that use Einstein look¬ alikes, the morphed version of the crown of Albert Einstein over a young child's "ordinary" body to suggest a sort of extraordinary striving towards excellence!
Certainly ordinary is the warp and weft that weaves together the fabric of what it means to be human. GK Chesterton spoke about the "ecstasy of being ordinary." Chesterton derived an immense satisfaction at being able to connect with the essential nature of things. He delighted in the "sudden yellowness of dandelion," the "wetness of water," the "fierceness of fire," or the "steeliness of steel." According to David Fagerberg, for Chesterton, "on every encounter, at every turn, with every person, there is cause for happiness…We have been given world filled with a million means to beatitude."
In other words, our ordinariness is the kernel that holds the promise of fulfillment and contentment. Yet, disconnected as we are from our intrinsic nature of being "perfect, whole, and complete," we seek to fill our emptiness from the outside. For most of us, this quest to fill our emptiness comes from the striving to be somebody.
Fear of Being Ordinary
All our lives we fear being ordinary. The ordinary frightens us. Therefore we strive to stand out from others through competition and achievement. Stemming from our own deeply held inadequacies and insecurities, this fear of being nobody is a powerful force that propels us to camouflage our own neediness with achievements, awards and accolades. Indeed in the process, many of us overachieve or overcompensate. Ironically, the more we do so, the more dissatisfied and empty we feel.
The Charisma of Being Ordinary
People who have embraced their ordinariness come across as individuals who are loved for their unpretentiousness, openness and simplicity. A person who embraces his ordinariness is former president of India APJ Abdul Kalam whose simplicity and authenticity were endearing and refreshing. As a teenager, I was an avowed fan of the late Princess Diana. Today when I look back at her life and times, I relate to her trials and tribulations as the struggle of a person who just wanted to be: Ordinary. She paid a heavy personal price for her courageous struggle, and the People's Princess is certainly an example of a person who dared to challenge the establishment and just wanted to experience the joy of being herself.
A friend recently told me about two doctors (both physicians) with divergent approaches to life and living. One was a successful doctor who worked round the clock with a hugely successful practice. The other was content with his work in a local medical college and instead of pursuing private practice at a feverish pace preferred to devote his evenings to his passion for violin. Mainstream culture would probably award the apparently "successful" doctor with its stamp of approval. But in my opinion, the second doctor exemplifies a life of being rather than doing. Perhaps in his ordinariness lies his extraordinariness!
In this issue of Madurai Messenger we have portraits of ordinary people who lead extraordinary lives. The women infected with HIV who have rescripted their lives into one of courage and hope and are a beacon to many like them and several others too. Or the late A.K. Kuppuram of Turning Point Book Store who believed that he was "an ordinary man who wanted to be different! And what a difference they made in the lives of people who knew them.