Does Ordinary Equal Meaningless?

Jul 09, 2020

I have a good friend who nearly died a couple years ago. From a medical perspective, he should have. He lived, though, and he told me not long ago about the odd experience of living when people thought he would die.

People who see him now sometimes say something like, “God must have saved you for something extraordinary.”

They mean it to encourage him, but think about the pressure that puts on a man. It’s as if they’re saying, “I’m glad you lived. Now do something amazing. Otherwise, God might regret saving your life.” Or, “Your life prior to your tragedy wasn’t really that meaningful.” Or unless some electrifying output occurs connected to our life, we are a waste.

It’s similar to the iconic final scene in Saving Private Ryan, where the now-elderly Private Ryan asks his wife if he’s a good man.

“Have I done enough?” he asks.

I fear that without meaning to, we put so much pressure on ourselves and others to be amazing that we have been stripped of the value, the worth, and the majesty of the ordinary. If it’s not super, incredible, viral, the best, the world’s greatest, then what does it matter?

How Did This Happen?

There’s something within us that lives to compare ourselves in all regards to others. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.”

So, the appeal of the extraordinary is simply the desire we all have to be noticed, remembered, better. Better than others, that is.

Combine that desire with the obsession we have culturally with fame. To be honest, the obsession is nothing new, but it has gone into hyper-drive over the past two decades with the rise of the Internet, and in the last decade in particular with YouTube and social media. (Ever heard of PewDiePie? The Swedish gamer has over 40 million YouTube subscribers.)

Why This Is a Dangerous Thing

Brene Brown wrote, “An ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life.” That is a tragedy. The ordinary gets sidelined and stuck in a box. It also, according to this excellent column, makes us reorder what is truly valuable—athletic ability or the ability to make funny 7-second videos, for example, becomes more valuable than compassion and integrity.

Losing the appreciation for the ordinary makes us live in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. It requires everything in life to be super-sized and exaggerated. If it isn’t over the top and the greatest of all time, then it has no value. It drowns the sound of simple joy. It blinds our eye to pure good. It dulls our imagination to the true and the beautiful.

What You Can Do

I ran across a website that publishes pictures of the ordinary. It was advertised as 45 ordinary photos.

It reminded me of the Humans of New York (HONY) phenomenon. Humans of New York is a photo blog and book that features ordinary street portraits and interviews collected on the streets of New York City. Started in November 2010 by photographer Brandon StantonHumans of New York has developed a large following through social media. As of yesterday, the blog had over 18 million followers on Facebook and around 8.2 million followers on Instagram. As of March 2015, the book had spent 31 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list.

Stanton didn’t try to play paparazzi, capturing and leveraging the famous among us. Rather, he ascribed incredible value to the everyday and ordinary among us.


I think the power and dignity of the ordinary life is what Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind when he said, “The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”

Want to receive Steve's articles in your inbox?

Subscribe here.

We will never sell your information, for any reason.