I have been able to realize some pretty extraordinary stuff in my life. I remember that growing up, I looked forward to the “mountaintop” experiences to get through the mundane moments of ordinary life. I remember thinking I had so many years before I could graduate high school, or that after getting through a particular final exam or presentation, I would be on break and take a vacation. My last semester of my first undergrad degree, I had to make a big presentation to the staff of the clinic where I was interning, and be ready and able to answer their questions. This was landing the day before my birthday. I knew that if I could get through that, my birthday was right behind it, and that was my goal.
I know we still operate like this very often. I still look at my work in terms of how many days I work in a row before I get a stretch off. As a staff nurse, I schedule myself in two- or three-day increments, then will have a day off or more to be “ordinary.”
I have been able to participate in a number of unique adventures, camps, missionary and volunteer experiences, ministries and career steps. I previously wrote about some of this in the blog titled, “Every Vocation is Worthwhile!”
One of the biggest challenges of having led such a unique life and working in ministry is the adulation and adoration from others who will comment, “You are amazing! I wish I was like you—I could never do what you are doing!” I do appreciate the compliment, but I do not believe that just because I was called to a particular opportunity, that I am any more “amazing” than anyone else. What I have done is to say “yes” to what felt like the call on my heart. I haven’t always gotten it right, but that has been my response.
We feel the need to compare ourselves to others, to their social media, to their highlights and accomplishments, and we measure ourselves against those. Athletes and public figures are glorified, celebrities are worshipped in interviews and in public spaces, certain career choices are elevated and others are considered to be lower in status or rank. We live from big experience to big experience (this retreat! That reunion or vacation! This upcoming promotion! The addition to the house! The new baby!), and the gritty details of daily life, the striving and straining, the financial challenges, the laundry, the family activities and dawn-to-dusk building blocks, the struggles, are considered unimportant, things to be “gotten through.”
But yet, when I have worked a particularly rough stretch, or even when I’m returning from a trip or vacation, I know I am not alone when I crave a return to the ordinary, the routine, the structure and comfort of my own space. There is goodness in our routines. There is blessing in the “ordinary” activities. Life as a missionary or the call of a singular glamorous-sounding career is no more important or higher in status than the mother who stays at home and nurtures the young lives around her.
My father is a musician, classically trained and educated. He began his career as a choir director at a high school, and burned out within three years. He worked in the hospital setting for a quarter-century as a transporter, then in the print shop, then as a purchasing agent. He eventually found his way back into music full-time, when he became the Director of Music at our parish. But for decades, he did jobs that were not glamorous (and when you do a bit of research, directing music is not that glamorous either!), but kept our family comfortable and fed, because he trusted that this was his calling at that time.
Life is mostly the “ordinary,” with the occasional milestone events interspersed. If we only live for the big moments, the accomplishments, the grandeur and the glory, we miss the integral, moment-to-moment changes and lessons that our rituals of daily life hold for us and can teach us. Do we negate Ordinary Time in the Catholic Church because “nothing exciting is happening?” Do we wait impatiently for Advent or for the Lenten season while ignoring the daily or weekly Mass readings and participating in the liturgy? I hope not! Each day holds richness and grace in it, waiting for us to partake in and receive it.
Is there anything exciting about folding the laundry? For some, maybe the relishing of having clean clothing is a blessing we forget to acknowledge. Is the endless school run during the week something that wears us down? Absolutely. Is the daily grind of house maintenance tedious and frustrating? Most likely. But yet, is there joy present in the newness of the day, the quiet moments of completing the tasks which enrich our lives despite (or because of) the repetition? I believe there is.
After a long work shift, and several years without a “mountaintop experience,” thanks to pandemic-related travel restrictions and my conservative approach to socialization for the sake of my health and the health of my patients, sometimes I dread coming home and having to walk the dogs in the heat. Or I put off regular health maintenance or car appointments because they just aren’t exciting. Spending money on the adulting things doesn’t bring that feeling of refreshment and excitement that those adventures do. But if we change our way of thinking to observe these mundane activities as acts of service to ourselves or to others, perhaps we can begin to see the goodness in them.
I think of the religious orders and communities grounded in simple acts, those assigned to tend to crops or to working in the kitchen preparing meals. Or the Divine Office prayed from before sunrise to dusk by the cloistered nuns. These “ordinary” assignments are not so ordinary. These are the vocations of those called to live them. They do so willingly and with joy.
In many ways, I am in awe of those who live lives that are considered so “ordinary.” Their “yes” given on a daily (or more than daily) basis is just as crucial and should be revered just as much as a decision to spend time overseas or pursue a vocation seen in public or acknowledged in the open, public sphere. The tasks of daily life, the infinite moments spent building relationships and families, the waking each day to what it holds and the promises it brings, yes, even brushing teeth and making scrambled eggs for the 1,031st time, are endless opportunities for grace, nourishment and goodness if we choose to see them that way. The lessons of experience, the working through crises and the edification of our characters through the performance of the mundane – so much richness is present!
Yes, we are likely walking through our daily lives completing tasks for which we may not ever understand the purpose. We cannot possibly comprehend the meaning in every moment that passes. But we can look for the hidden goodness in what we consider monotonous or unimportant. If we can break the cycle of comparison and embrace the everyday, boring or unwanted components of routine life, believing that these are essential to our formation into imperfect vessels of a perfect love, we can live out our hidden vocations as well as our public ones.