The Ordinary Generation
In his book, “The Greatest Generation” Tom Brokaw wrote, “At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting in the most primitive conditions possible across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, and the coral islands of the Pacific. They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front. They won the war; they saved the world. I think it is the greatest generation any society ever produced.”
A hard act to follow! Their children were the Baby Boomers who quickly became the Me Generation. Self-absorbed, consumption-oriented and devotees of everything big, we went for scale with megachurches, malls, technology, global enterprises and rapid expansion. Our models were Rick Warren, Stephen Covey, Steve Jobs, and the Rolling Stones. We wanted it loud, entertaining, and outrageous. We demanded novelty and stimulation. Yes, there were those few into “small is beautiful”, Joni Mitchell and the Sierra Club but, for the most part, we wanted everything to grow and quickly become “category killers.”
Something has changed and it’s not limited to the next age-defined generation. It is a mixture of people old and young. Starting ten years ago (or more) waves of people began for the first time reading Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, and Annie Dillard. They left the Stones and found self-reflective and acoustic artists. Contemplatives Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, and Kathleen Norris had their ear. No longer were they going to motivational conferences but preferred smaller groups, retreat centers, lodges, and communities. It was a search for a measure of simplicity – although no one could define it. It was a sense that something was missing that could not be had in the life that had been advertised. Again, this is not restricted to any particular age group. Perhaps the source of its growth and resilience is just that: being inter-generational.
I am going to call it “the ordinary generation” because it is populated and driven by authors and artists encouraging people in various stages of life to value their daily routines and habits. Of course, that is what ordinary means – daily. A fancier word is “quotidian” but nothing works better than daily. It is what we repeat over and over again all our lives. It is the routines and seeming mundane habits that shape us silently, but finally. It is the patterns of our lives often unnoticed until our eulogy when words like faithfulness, tenacity, and integrity are used, hopefully, to sum us up.
This new generation is those who have taken seriously St. Paul’s words, “…make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders…” In “Liturgy of the Ordinary” Tish Harrison Warren writes, “The crucible of our formation is in the monotony of our daily routines…The kind of spiritual life and disciplines needed to sustain the Christian life are quiet, repetitive, and ordinary. I often want to skip the boring, daily stuff to get to the thrill of an edgy faith. But it’s in the dailiness of the Christian faith – the making of the bed, the doing of the dishes, the praying for our enemies, the reading of the Bible, the quiet, the small – that God’s transformation takes root and grows.”
As you might expect, I have concerns about this becoming a practice accessible only to those able to afford the luxury of simplicity and the vicarious enjoyment of Wendell Berry’s life as a farmer from the comfort of our dens and retreats. You might call it the “gentrification of the ordinary” that makes celebrities of those who have extraordinary talent in describing and inviting us to the world of the ordinary. After all, how would I have known about the life of the ordinary had it not been for Annie Dillard’s extraordinary “Pilgrim At Tinker Creek” or Mary Oliver’s exalted poetry? It is only those who can make the ordinary interesting and uncommon who will attract our attention.
There is always the danger of romanticizing the ordinary. It was the Ashcan School of Art that is best known for works portraying scenes of daily life in New York’s poorest neighborhoods. While desiring to stir the public conscience with their focus on poverty and the gritty realities of urban life, their art was so captivating that their subjects became beautiful art – but not worthy of pity.
That said, I do long for it. I want it to be true that in the end, it will not be the grand achievements that will have mattered as much as the dailiness of love, grace, kindness and the ambition of a quiet life.