The Subversive Call of Ordinary Life

In “How to Stay Calm During the Pandemic,” Harvard Kennedy School professor Arthur Brooks parses the difference between risk and uncertainty, between disappointment and regret, and what happens to us when we confuse, in each case, the one for the other.

I appreciate the analysis. I’m a word nerd. I’ve seen — we all have — what happens to language in a crisis. It gets battered and abused. Confusion prevails.

So it’s good to get clear about what we’re actually feeling (e.g., disappointment, not regret.)  And it’s helpful to assign agency, to remember what is within our control (very little) and what isn’t (pretty much everything else.) What is known (a few things) and what is unknown (a lot), and maybe even what is unknowable (like when will this be over? which assumes there will be an “over,” which there may or may not be.)

Anyway, when I came to the end of Brooks’ article, I caught a glimpse of something fleeting, like the tail of a dog rounding the corner on the far side of the garage. It was a little throwaway line that made reference to “ordinary life” as something that will resume at some point. When all this is “over.”

I read that and thought, nope. Ordinary life isn’t what will resume. Ordinary life is what is happening right now, in the midst of all this turmoil.

Quotidian, intimate, human, messy. The ordinary has been re-discovered.

The distribution is unequal, or course, like most things in our culture. Those who work in hospitals, those designated “essential,” those in prison or in a shelter or an ICE camp, they’re probably not going to partake of a whole lot of ordinary. But for those of us staying home, in our rooms, with families, with pets, by ourselves, watching out our windows, watching our TVs, cooking meals, sitting down to eat, going for walks, texting friends, kissing our partners, fighting with our partners, lonely for others, missing those we’ve lost, content in the solitude, restless, bored, this is what ordinary feels like.

It’s true that life is circumscribed now, we can’t go places or do things, and we’re facing a horrific death toll that ought to shock us into a new way of being, but likely won’t. The demands of this culture that we earn and spend and produce, produce, produce, will force the acceptance of a false tale that all of this was a one-time thing, an anomaly, nothing to worry about now that it’s over. (“over.”) But right now, the reality of our days, while not normal, given that we’re putting on masks to venture out into a world of shuttered cafes and shops, is nonetheless ordinary. And that’s a good thing.

The lives we left outside the door six weeks ago, two months ago, those lives were not ordinary. For so many of us, those lives were capitulations to a system that requires us to leave behind the ordinary — that which makes us human — so that we can become what the system needs us to be, machine-like and compliant and in service to profit. Such a system can never be ordinary, and it can never have our best interests at heart because it has no heart. And we resist returning to it because it hurts our own hearts to contemplate it.

Of course we’re uncertain and we can’t assess the risks because there is so much we don’t know, and we don’t want to get sick, and we don’t want to see any more of our friends and families to get sick.

But we also resist because we’ve had a minute or two to slow down and look around. We’ve seen our pre-pandemic lives in a harsh new light. The shabbiness of it all gives us pause.

It’s that pause that has the profiteers worried now, and they’re scrambling to get us all “back to work.” For they know that if we’re too long away from the demands of that system that has no heart, we might realize (surprise!) that we prefer the rhythm of our own hearts, that we like being immersed in the ordinary, we like the connection and kinship and pleasure and intimacy of our small daily satisfactions. That if it weren’t for the money we need to keep ourselves afloat, more than a few of us would say, “No thanks.”

And when enough of us figure that out, who knows what might happen?

3 thoughts on “The Subversive Call of Ordinary Life

  1. Hello Peggy! 🙂

    I was so happy to find your blog, and I really enjoyed this post!

    Excellent writing… and I love the question at the end!

    Stay safe and healthy…

    Teja

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