Virginia Woolf, one of the most badass writers of the early 20th century, once said that writing should be about the examination of “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.” “The mind,” she wrote, “receives a myriad [of] impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall…they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday…” This sentiment, adopted by many other modernist writers in Woolf’s time, was rooted in the idea that so much goes on underneath the surface of even the most ordinary events and interactions. It’s the idea that some of the most extraordinary moments in our lives can actually take place in our daily routine, but because they seem so simple we tend to let these small moments pass by unnoticed; skimmed over in our pursuits of bigger dreams and perhaps harsher realities. In short, these writers wrote in defense of the ordinary.
I have thought about this sentiment often over the course of the year. Mainly I have thought about it because my 2014 failed in comparison to my 2013. Not just a small failure, either. Like atomic bomb style failure. Like I’d-really-prefer-it-if-we-pretend-like-2014-didn’t-happen failure. However, as every New Year approaches, I tend to rehash the year’s events and determine what I did well and what I could do better and, well, I even did it for the shit year that was 2k14. So why was it bad? Why was my year the purple Teletubbie who was always so awkward and who no one really wanted to hang out with? It seemed to fail, I soon realized, because my perception of the extraordinary moments of 2014 were simply non-existent in relation to 2013. Where were my exciting adventures? My numerous foreign lovahhhs? My high-paying job offer? Where was the drive for my life that I had just a year ago? I was drowning in these questions, trying to find a way to explain the huge left turn I had suddenly taken in life to Pity-Partysville where I was stuck without a plan for my future life. Like many 20-somethings, I was beginning to experience a constant anxiety that grew as the year went on; a voice that kept telling me I was never good enough and that I was, undoubtedly, looking at a future comprised of shit jobs and an ever-growing collection of cats.
Turning from these slightly over-the-top thoughts, I began to wonder why 2013 was so extraordinary in my mind. For most of this past year I always found myself remembering the Big Moments of 2013: the places I traveled to, the people I met, the things I experienced. Yet when I thought more about these aspects I realized that what really made 2013 spectacular were my ordinary interactions with the world. In 2013 I had traveled frequently and was often in cities where my daily routine had extraordinary undertones; I was going to college, but in a historically-thriving city. I had coffee, but in coffeehouses where big name authors had once sipped their espressos and black coffees. I had met a guy and for a time had the consistency of knowing that someone out in this big ole crazy world liked me too. My life had comforting, but uniquely wonderful, constants. In 2014, the tectonic plates of my life shifted, leaving subtle, then more disastrous, destruction in its wake. In realizing that it was the ordinary consistencies that I craved, however, I came to understand that perhaps 2014 was not as horrible as I thought it had been. So instead of focusing on the Big Moments of 2014 which unfortunately carried less positive connotations, I focused on the small ordinary moments: having brunch with my mom at the Strand in London, eating dinner with my best friends during a power outage over the summer, driving to see The 1975 in DC on a school night, dancing to “Uptown Funk” in the street at 2am—these, too, were moments that were extraordinary, but had evaded me as I searched for the extra-ordinariness that I believed had abandoned me this year. Perhaps achieving the Big Moments wasn’t as important as I had made it out to be.
The only life goal that I’ve had since I turned 18 was to have an “Extraordinary Life.” I realize now that this is incredibly vague and even more subjective, but I clung to this concept. I had long ago given up on New Year’s Resolutions like “Lose 15 pounds by summer break” and “Read all Russian novels of literary merit” in favor of dedicating my life to not being like everyone else. I had a real resolution now, and it was to die one day knowing that, above all else, I had lived an extraordinary life. Every New Year’s Eve I would vow to be even more extraordinary than the previous year, often times doing stupid things throughout the year in the name of the “Extraordinary.” But I never truly defined the term. What did living an “extraordinary” life mean? For years I have thought that living an extraordinary life meant that I had to plan everything out immediately. How could I ensure that I was living the best possible life if I didn’t have lists to check off? Categories to compare myself to? And so much of this past year became a mission to find and secure the “Amazing Everythings” that I thought I needed to be extraordinary: the Amazing Guy, the Amazing Job, the Amazing Exterior Appearance, and, most importantly, the Amazing Life Plan That Makes It Look Like My Shit Is Together.
As you can imagine—and now, at the dawn of 2015, I’ve realized as well—there is no list. There are no categories, no boxes, no standards. So what, then, was there?
In an interview regarding her incredibly successful novel, Unbroken, an interviewer asked Laura Hillenbrand what drew her to the subject of a World War II veteran. Hillenbrand replied:
In times of extremity, ordinary individuals must reach into the depths of themselves, and there they find the true content of their character. Some find emptiness, frailty, even dark impulses. But others find genuity, the will to soldier on when will is all they have left. These are the virtues that turn history, and these are the virtues that enable individuals to prevail in the supreme trials of their lives. It is in times of superlative hardship that individuals live their epic adventures, stories that thrill, fascinate, inspire and illuminate. Theirs are the stories I’m drawn to.
I am not foolish or vain enough to insinuate that any hardship I have endured is even remotely comparable to a war veteran, or even to Hillenbrand, who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and still writes impeccable books. I am however bold enough to draw a parallel between the ordinary, Hillenbrand’s defense for the “will to soldier on,” and the plight of 20-somethings everywhere. In recent conversations with my peers, it has come to my attention that all 20-somethings feel disgustingly ordinary at times. How will I find a job, you might wonder, when I have the same credentials as thousands of others? How will I find love when all the cute guys I know are gay or taken? How will I ever manage to survive in a world that has been turned on its head this year; that seems, at times, to be unspeakably cruel and unsympathetic?
The answer: You will reach inside the depths of yourself, believe in the extra-ordinariness of your ordinary everyday life, and find the means to endure. Because those that do will always have the most fascinating stories to tell. Those who find the extra-ordinariness in their otherwise ordinary lives will find their epic adventures.
Regardless of whether this previous year has been one of your best or one of your worst, I still think that it is worthwhile in life to make the conscious effort of striving for the extraordinary in all aspects of our lives. That means dumping that lame-ass guy who makes you feel like a piece of paper, being compassionate to your fellow human beings, not buying into the facades that our social media accounts perpetuate, and believing that you’re the smartest, kindest, most badass person you know. It is not easy being all of these things—in fact, it’s downright terrifying. Especially (dear sweet baby Jesus, I’m gonna emphasize that again—especially) when you’re in your 20s and you’re not even sure where to go for dinner, let alone figure out the rest of your life. If there was a handbook for being extraordinary, someone would have written it by now. The fact of the matter is that it takes gumption to be extraordinary; it is not a matter of how much you’ve read or traveled, what your current job is, how many people you’ve dated, or how much money you have. In fact, it seems that being extraordinary isn’t about the big defining moments at all; rather it’s about exuding passion, kindness, and perseverance in even the most ordinary circumstances of our daily lives. It seems that, even from the 20th century to today, we are drawn to the stories of ordinary individuals who somehow manage to find the extraordinary. Make sure that in 2015 you are one of those stories.
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Loved this piece, to bits and pieces. Would love to get in touch with you, Maureen! Email me if you like at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me @realtalkblog!