For most of us most of the time, life seems very sad, a real chump’s game. We typically fritter away our daily lives dreaming of getting what by definition we will never have, save (at most) as a fleeting exception to the norm: the exciting, the exceptional, and the exotic. This is so because these things are by definition exceptions, not the norm. The quest for things that transcend the norm involves selling short what we actually have. It also means we spend our time competing with all the other people who also want these things—exotic and exceptional are concepts defined by the group. And if we get the fabulous exception to the norm, what do we do then? Let’s say we actually get a movie star’s autograph. How exciting, but what now? Or we go to Bora-Bora: it can’t be for too long. Going there to live is something else entirely. By definition the exciting doesn’t remain so, the exceptional is the exception, and the exotic is found only in places that are elsewhere than where we normally are. We no sooner achieve them, if we do, but we usually leave them—and a good thing it is, because we can’t spend all of our time excited, exceptions become the average if they go on too long, and the exotic isn’t so to those who live there.
So we never actually get for longer than a brief moment these things that determine our actions and that seem so desirable: what we rarely get has the greatest value. They aren’t our lives, but alternatives to our lives. Yet these alternatives to our own lives draw us on, because they seem like pulse-pounding alternatives to the monotony of the everyday. We have to choose, it seems, between the gray norm we can have just by breathing, or the brief brilliant fireworks so difficult to behold (if we ever do) that light up the sky and then fizzle out, leaving another interval of grayness that has to be gotten through before we can have another momentary thrill. The norm is, it seems, banal; the exception fleeting and all but unachievable. And that’s our life, the careening between the two: what we have, we don’t want. What we want, we can’t get. And if we do it’s not for very long, and rarely satisfying.
If that’s not sad, it’s difficult to say what would be.
This situation is what I would like to change. And it can be changed: as the either/or is posed, it is simply depressing; if we assume that the world need be understood in these terms, we will never the vise of this lose/lose situation. So we have to reconceive it, cut the Gordian knot. Our lives need not be this way, and we can change this situation simply by accurately understanding the natures both of the everyday and of the exceptional: the everyday is far more active a situation than we usually see, and the exceptional we run after is a thing of our own creation that therefore is no alternative to our normal lives, but part of it. We need not see the everyday as merely gray drudgery, and we need not lust after the things we ourselves have given value to precisely because they are so hard to achieve.
We should in fact value the everyday for the simple fact that we work so hard to achieve it. Currently, we are unaware that we are doing so. It’s my goal here to show just how active our lives are at the level of the everyday, and how much we value them. If we become aware of the complexity of the everyday and the work we invest to achieve it, we may appreciate it more than we currently do. We expend energy achieving the exceptional, even if briefly, but in fact we expend vastly more energy keeping the rest of our life on track to be ordinary—and certainly we act as if it has value for us even while we are bad-mouthing it.
The ordinary is always something achieved, and more to the point, something we want achieved. It doesn’t happen by itself. We should be aware of the lengths we go to to achieve the ordinary, and celebrate these. Why should only the dangerous seem exciting for us? In fact, we construct our everyday existence to be as free of danger as possible. We are careful crossing the street, we know we shouldn’t text when we drive, and we get insurance on the house. Certainly we want people to respond in expected ways and for errands to take the time they generally take; that’s the way we’ve planned it, after all. We love predictability, and our victory is getting the expected, the ordinary. We should celebrate it.
Yet, paradoxically, we say it’s boring. We work all year to go or do for a week or two something different when and where, it seems, anything can happen, and go to see or be around people who are extraordinary in some way. Still, this doesn’t show we really want to leave our so carefully constructed everyday world. We make sure the vacation is tempered by being tethered to the everyday; our contact with things that transcend the ordinary is kept within bounds. In fact though we say we want to transcend the everyday, we want things that only appear to threaten our so carefully constructed everyday, without actually doing so.
We like to look at lions but they have to be in a cage, or us in a Land Rover with a professional guide. We go on roller coasters, but only because we know we will come out the end and that the tracks are bolted down. We read books about people faced with familial and societal crises we hope we will never experience ourselves. We go to strange and unfamiliar places, but we get an all-inclusive package in a resort, and go during the period free of hurricanes. Once there, we throw off the yoke of the office by donning a swim suit, and drink a mai tai by the pool (at 9 a.m.). Like as not, this is all on a tropical sugar cane island whose year-round inhabitants dream only of emigrating to the places in North America or Europe that we’ve come from, dream of making our everyday theirs. And woe betide us if we leave the gates of the resort: we are met not by fawning wait staff bearing alcohol and wreathed with smiles and sometimes flowers, but instead the reality of the children playing before dirt floor shacks. We want the exceptional, but not too exceptional: controlled danger is what we seek. These escape valves are part of our everyday: they’re not really exceptions, they’re programmed in as “exceptions.” Ultimately we’re wedded to the everyday. And we like it, no matter what we say. We might as well enjoy it too.