"...life is so much more than occasions, and its grand ordinariness must never go unsavored." - Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection
If you’re anything like me, this pandemic may have you thinking about the nature of the good life. What makes our days full, joyful, and worth living? How do we get at the things that matter, even when all of our routines are pulled out from under us?
A participant in one of my recent online classes described waking up one pandemic morning during shut-down, looking in the mirror, and asking herself “So, this is it?” With no reason to leave the house, wear real shoes, or be particularly productive, it wasn’t clear why she was there or what the point was. Can you relate?
This is a question I’ve been asking myself my whole life. Why are we here? What’s the point? Life is hard and then we die – it’s all so short, and the chances of being remembered for long when we’re gone are so slim. What are we supposed to be doing while we’re here, and why is it so hard to feel any sense of worth or accomplishment? In the words of Wendell Berry’s book of essays, “What are people for?”
Maybe you have an answer to this question that works for you, something taken from The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren, Man in Search of Meaning by Victor Frankl, or the Heidelberg Catechism Question 1. If that is the case, feel free to read no farther. Otherwise, stick with me.
Who are the people you think have lived a good life, and why? You might pause your reading here to actually answer this question, and make sure your examples are people you know well & authentically.
I’ve pretty consistently held myself up to famously principled & bold people like Mother Theresa or Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Or famously rich people like Steve Jobs (who it turns out was pretty mean to people) or Oprah Winfrey. Or people claiming to be famously successful on social media, trying to sell me their influencer secrets on Instagram. None of these are people I know well, or know at all for that matter.
So who are the people you actually know well, and why do you see their life as worthwhile? Chances are that it has something to do with their mere presence on earth. Nothing about that Nobel Peace Prize they won or that best-selling novel they wrote. Sure, those things are fun, but they don’t make a life worthy or non-worthy. We love people for the things it’s hard to put our finger on, their essence. We love that they are here with us, we love their little quirks and personalities. We know that when they’re gone, they leave a hole that can never be filled. Babies are a case in point - we know and love a baby before it has even emerged from the womb, before it has "done anything with its life."
If you’ve followed the career of Mark Shields, you know he’s just stepped down from his weekly role on the PBS NewsHour. My husband is a big fan, so I watched the farewell video for Shields as a sign of marital solidarity. The things people will miss about Shields from his 33+ years on the show include his integrity, knowledge, wisdom, and sense of humor. But the thing that I found the most touching in the tribute video was this exchange:
Judy Woodruff: He's beloved by his current and former producers, even for his strict preshow routine.
This is so normal. A guy who is a bit finicky about the color of his paper, his highlighters, & his stapling. A guy who has gotten comfortable enough with himself over the years that he knows just how he likes it, and he’s not afraid to be that person. And a staff that feels warmth as they recount these little indicators of his personhood, these small but meaningful reflections of who he is.
The other day, my sister-in-law put out a request for family members to share their Christmas traditions via chat. I shared mine in great detail, emojis included, hit send, and immediately felt ashamed. I didn’t want to come across as too perfectionistic, too demanding or picky, or too eager to hog the limelight. I wished I had just chosen one little tradition to share instead of dragging people into the whole run-down of our family Christmas traditions. I expressed embarrassment to my husband, who smiled as he turned to me and said, “Never apologize for being who you are.”
I smile even now when I type these words. What if it’s okay for us each to be who we are, and what if this is actually the point of life? To be ourselves, to settle into that, to assume that our good creator takes delight in us as a good creation.
This is it, this is the meaning that resonates with me. To be who we are. And that means that this moment, where I am me, is enough. It is okay as it is, created by God, filled with the tools of goodness. There’s nothing outside of this moment that I need to do or to be. The sounds, sights, smells, feelings, tastes of goodness are right here – the meaning of life is here with me as I am, soaked right into the fabric of the everyday me. Nothing to prove to anyone. No where else to go, nothing else to do, except being who I am in the moment, connected and grounded to who God has made me to be in each moment.
I think we need this reminder in a Christmas season where the usual trappings of meaning & purpose are stripped away. This year, the line “I’ll be home for Christmas” sounds a little less sentimental and a little more pandemicky – of course you’ll be home for Christmas, where you’ve been since March. So what will you do to savor its “grand ordinariness,” to make it special & meaningful without the usual routines, without the glitter? How will you be fully yourself?
Whatever your grand ordinariness looks like this year, whatever it looks like to be fully you in this season, I wish you and your loved ones a very Merry Christmas!
I am Irene Kraegel. I work as a clinical psychologist and teach mindfulness on a faith-based university campus. I practice mindfulness because it opens me up to God (a.k.a. brings joy). I am writing here in hopes of sharing some of my experiences and thoughts related to the practice of mindfulness in the life of a Christian. Thanks for reading!
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