The quotidian life: I think we sometimes forget what a remarkable achievement that really is. In 1995, an autobiographical account of the Holocaust called One Survivor Remembers won the Academy Award for best documentary (short subject). It was based on the life of Gerda Weissman Klein who, during her acceptance speech, paid tribute to her fellow victims who would never live to experience “the magic of a boring evening at home.” A moving and deep reaching statement, but how many of us have thought this to ourselves, about our own lives, without the absence of once having experienced unspeakable horrors? What would it take to move us into a place of gratitude, for us to feel satisfied with "good enough"? Part of the problem is that, as a society, we have an impoverished view of what a meaningful life should look like.
Imagine for a moment a life where you have a steady job and know everyday people and have ordinary children; admittedly, it’s not very seductive. But it is also a life that persists without disability and extreme adversity, a life where you may go largely unnoticed by others, but your private life is filled with creativity, joy, community. For those of us who are raising children, what wouldn’t we give in exchange for the assurance that our children will indeed grow up to be wonderfully “average”? That is, without crippling mental illness, social struggles, academic issues, learning disabilities, and health concerns?
But in today’s world, being “average” is akin to death. It is to be rendered invisible. There is a tacit call, amplified by social media, to be move beyond being merely normal and be seen as somehow special. How else in a world of social branding can one feel seen and valued?
And so we expend a great deal of energy crafting an image of ourselves. It’s a terrible waste of real and psychic time, especially since I think most people generally like themselves for who they innately are. The problem lies with our preoccupation with public perception. This affects our ability to relate to people in genuine ways because of our unconscious desire to make our weaknesses more known: we make being with others essentially about ourselves. And in that moment of unsteady linking, both literal and symbolic contact with the other person is lost.
This impatient urge to be known lends itself to a kind of existential discomfort. In a world that devalues the mundane and the power of restraint, we have curated an inability to tolerate ambiguity. But what is it that we are really trying to appraise? What we want to know is that we matter. And of course we all DO matter. Irrespective of what we do or what we possess or who we know or where we have been. We can know we matter because of the simple fact that we are here.
What we are afraid of is staking claim on our best selves, which cannot be realized in one moment in time, but can only unfold over and across time. Who we are emerges in that space between me and other. And, like a garden, over tilling this space can destroy delicate cycles taking place underfoot. Sometimes we just have to place our trust in a process or source that's bigger than our own manipulations.
One way to start is to step away from what you fear and instead lean into the moment. Listen to what the other person is saying with this posture. The paradox of this kind of intense focus is that the more you do it, the more you broaden your scope. Try this with someone whom you know and trust. And hopefully, what you’ll discover is a small parcel of being where meaning and true self expression can be unleashed one connected conversation at a time.