I have frequently wondered why writers so often undervalue or ignore the ordinary activities of daily life. On any given morning, news outlets publish hundreds of stories about war, deviance, and disaster. At the opposite extreme, people naturally want to admire extraordinary accomplishments: the musical or athletic prodigy, the great beauty, the Nobel Prize winner, and the saint. But the very bad and the very good usually do not reflect the way most people live, and these extremes are not even aspirational. We really do not want to be evil, and we probably do not want to devote our lives to the pursuit of some epoch-making goal.  

Where does this leave those of us who desire meaningful and flourishing lives, but who understand the term “ordinary” as middling, unremarkable, even boring? Must we always compare ourselves to the extremes, or is there a way of thinking about daily life—in medias res—that does not denigrate it but sees it for its virtues, as the place where truly meaningful things happen? I think there is such a way, but it requires cultivating a kind of quiet virtue and self-assurance. It demands boldness in resisting the world’s demands, and we must learn how to ignore all the sparkly things that distract us. 

About thirty years ago, I was introduced to a fantastically interesting man. He was a military intelligence officer and an archaeologist, a lapsed Pentecostal, someone ostensibly married but living in a separate apartment from his wife. He was reputed to have dalliances with students, who were then about my age. It wasn’t that he was strikingly handsome; but he certainly was exciting. He lived a life unlike anything I’d ever seen, full of adventure, intrigue, liaisons. He was a masterful storyteller. One couldn’t help but find him fascinating. 

I was always troubled by the fact that when I compared myself to him, I came up lacking. I hadn’t had affairs; I didn’t jet all over the world designing war games. I also knew that I didn’t want to live his life. But I thought that if something was worth telling as a story or writing about as an essay or article, then it required extremes and exceptionalism: singular happenings, shocking turns of events, the terrible and the heroic—in short, great drama. As a Texas truck stop saying puts it more colloquially: “Bad decisions make good stories.” 

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Of course, bad decisions do actually make good stories. Greek tragedy, after all, was never about nice people being kind to one another; tragedy was and is riveting because it concerns murder, adultery, anger, and revenge. Even if we do not want to perform such deeds ourselves, the drama and emotional intensity of evil and crisis capture our attention. Why else has the “true crime” genre exploded into public consciousness in recent years? 

Yet the last thing any normal, well-adjusted person wants is to participate in the events of tragedy or true crime. In daily life we seek accommodation, compromise, and, in a word, peace. As Thomas Hobbes recognized so long ago, in a state of constant war or upheaval, there is no place for the “commodious living” that allows for the pursuit of intrinsic goods like love, family life, worship, and contemplation. 

Still, though, the disconnect between our desire to read about sensational, dramatic events and to live peaceful, well-ordered lives continues to bother me. Having served on the board of a magazine for about a decade, I know that the stories that “get more eyeballs” are almost uniformly provocative or controversial. Does this mean, as I thought thirty years ago, that the daily and the ordinary are simply not that interesting? 

I don’t think it does. Some of the freshest writing right now comes from outlets like Public Discourse, Plough, Local Culture, The Hedgehog Review, and Comment, where writers consider topics that haven’t always been given their due: nature, music, disability, marriage and dating, the lives of children, friendship, even food and farming. Not that anyone should cease writing about religion, politics, and war: but it is worth noting that this well-worn triumvirate does not exhaust human experience. 

It also turns out that ordinariness does not mean mediocrity. Ordinary life offers many opportunities for excellence, and as “ordinary people” we may indeed desire to be very good. The end of George Eliot’s Middlemarch captures just such a vision. In her famous concluding sentences, Eliot writes of the book’s heroine, Dorothea, that “the effect of [her] being” was “incalculably diffusive.” For, Eliot continues, the “growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”  

Hidden lives and unhistoric acts: surely these phrases describe all but a tiny fraction of people who have ever lived. Yet our present culture tends to perceive this kind of humble, local existence as failure. Instead, we are encouraged to “promote our brands,” to cultivate “followings” on social media, and to “put ourselves out there.”  

What if we did just the opposite, and ignored this obnoxious and intrusive pressure?  

I can suggest three preliminary ways of doing so. First, resisting or ignoring such pressure requires thinking rather differently about what constitutes a good life. Second, the work of maintaining life—in many different domains—is not a preamble to the “really important” matters; maintenance simply is the stuff of life. And finally, to whatever extent possible, we ought to spend our time engaged in intrinsic goods, those activities and pursuits that do not depend on the approbation or attention of others. None of this is easy in an age of social media and instant communication. The real irony is that the people who do it best don’t have to write essays about it; they’re already doing it. 

But for those of us who are not quite there, it’s well worth asking how we might recalibrate our standards of value and interest. Part of the answer is to recognize the conflict I have described squarely for what it is: the world rewards big achievers and big talkers, the loud and the confident. Though we may know that almost all achievements are ultimately fleeting, there is no escaping this worldly pressure to do notable things and make a mark. Even in the church and the academy—places that were traditionally refuges from the world—priests must “grow their congregations” and academics “build their platforms.” The pressures of publicity and self-promotion are everywhere. And this makes people who have chosen to opt out, either permanently or for a period of time, feel as if they might have failed, or that they are not playing the important game.  

An example of this is the mother (or father) who has chosen to stay at home with children, or the person who cares for an aging parent or a disabled child. Little or nothing that such a person does is recognized by the world, yet this is often where the most extraordinary self-sacrifice takes place. One colleague and friend of mine has a child with severe cerebral palsy, and she is his primary caregiver. From the outside, what she does looks impossible and grueling. For the past eighteen years she has taken him to hundreds of doctors’ appointments, endured the anxiety of his multiple serious surgeries, dressed him, fed him, and changed his diapers. There is no end in sight for her. She cannot go away on vacation; she cannot pursue “her own career.” The world pays little attention to what she does, and she certainly doesn’t receive raises and positive yearly evaluations. Yet nothing is clearer than that she is doing “mundane” and ordinary work that is eternally meaningful. And this is because it is motivated and sustained by deep and abiding love.   

In 1942, Dorothy Sayers penned a wonderful essay entitled “Why Work?” There she argued that work ought to be valued “by the worth of the thing that is made,” not in terms of extrinsic considerations, like wages or honor. “We should ask of an enterprise,” Sayers wrote, not whether or how much it will pay but instead: “is it good?” Here is the question that ought to orient our lives, and not just our “professional lives” but everything we undertake: is it good?   

If we have eyes to see it, excellence lurks in all kinds of unusual and humble places.


If we have eyes to see it, excellence lurks in all kinds of unusual and humble places. At my local doughnut shop, I have often watched the women who run the counter manage multiple demands, long lines, and difficult customers, all while effortlessly toggling between perfect Spanish and perfect English, depending on the customer. These women have a work ethic that puts most white-collar workers to shame, showing up at four in the morning and staying on their feet until late afternoon. Will they ever be profiled in The New York Times? Will elites think they are praiseworthy? I doubt it. But this doesn’t, in the least, take away from their intrinsic excellence.  

The second point about ordinariness is that we are constantly tempted to think that all the daily things we do impede the really significant things that are just around the corner. After we make the bed, put away the dishes, take the children to school, finish the laundry, and feed the animals, then we’ll attend to our own “important” work. We imagine that these tasks of daily life could just as well be done by anyone as by ourselves. But these tasks, and especially the care they imply for those we live with and love, are uniquely meant to be done by us. They also temper pride and tamp down a sense of self-importance. They are examples of “all the good works” God has given us to do.  

Nobody is above attending to the daily needs of life—the “quotidian mysteries,” as Kathleen Norris has called them—and if we think about these tasks rightly we can even find a sense of joy in doing them. When I find that I am tired of stripping beds or cutting vegetables, I often think to myself: thank goodness I have people to care for!  

One final note: I observe within myself a deep desire for permanence. The redbud tree in my front yard is in full bloom right now, and I want to capture its beauty and keep it forever, as if one could spray a fixative on nature. But in no time at all it will shed its striking purple and put on ordinary green leaves like all the other trees. One way of grasping at permanence is to pursue the big and the grand and the beautiful and to try to keep them as one’s own. We imagine that perhaps we could finally do something that would mark a lasting accomplishment, and through this, solve the problem of transience.  

Of course, in our more sensible moments we know that this is an illusion. To counter this illusion, we might instead think less of ourselves as purposeful agents with agendas and more about the miracle of being alive at all. I was recently home with my parents, looking at family photos—some almost 200 years old—and I couldn’t help but marvel at the contingency of all the various people and events that had come together to produce my existence. How fortunate I am to be able to contemplate that redbud tree in my yard, to care for my family, and to do my daily work. Yes, of course all of it is impermanent; but there is at least an echo of permanence in cultivating what Gabriel Marcel has called disponibilité or “availability” to experience.  

To admire the world and other people, and especially to appreciate the ordinary things that make up our ordinary existence: this is worthwhile activity. Ordinary intrinsic goods include things like cooking, reading to children, conversation with friends, and, of course, worship and contemplation. All are motivated “by loving acceptance,” as Josef Pieper writes, and by “affectionate affirmation.”  

The nineteenth-century writer Walter Pater, no conventionally religious man, nevertheless wrote beautifully about the sanctity of ordinary, daily things. “[S]imple gifts,” he observed, like bread, oil, wine, and milk, can sometimes regain “that poetic, and as it were moral significance, which surely belongs to all the means of our daily life, could we but break through the veil of our familiarity with things by no means vulgar in themselves. This is a most fulfilling approach to life for anyone who wants to take it up: breaking through the veil of familiarity to see that “ordinary life” can indeed be sacred and deeply meaningful. 

Image by Jackie Warinner and licensed via Adobe Stock.