The Normal, the Ordinary, and the Common

The Convivial Society: Dispatch, No. 4

I keep hearing, or more often reading, people debating about what a return to normal should look like or if a return to normal is advisable at all.

I’ve registered my own thoughts about this a time or two in this newsletter. For example, in what already seems like another age, just about three weeks ago, I wrote,

I have no idea what things will look like on the other side, but I am reasonably sure that we will not merely return to normal. Long before the coronavirus appeared on the horizon, it seemed to me that “normal,” or what people meant by “normal” was already on the way out. And, I’m not sure that we should regret it altogether.

I still think this is basically right, but I want to clarify what I’m thinking about as normal, especially in light of the fact that something important and good is typically driving the desire to return to normal.

The point is not particularly profound. It’s clear that what some people mean when they say they can’t wait for things to return to normal is that they desire an end to the isolation, anxiety, suffering, and death. And it is equally clear, I think, that much of what passed for normal had been in itself a source of isolation, anxiety, suffering, and death, if perhaps at a less evident and disastrous pace and scale.

I propose, then, that we distinguish between what is normal, on the one hand, and what is ordinary and common on the other. There will be more to say than this, but I’ve found it useful to begin here.

When I’ve claimed that a return to normal is not exactly what we should be aiming for, I’ve had no one particular thing in mind. Rather, what I’ve had in mind is something like a normative state of affairs. It’s useful to recall that our word normal, in keeping with its Latin etymology, has also meant conformity to a rule, standard, or pattern. It implies the possibility that the rule or standard or pattern in question may be bad or unjust.

So I’m suggesting that what we now call our old normal involved a conformity to a rule, standard, or pattern that was, in many respects, deeply flawed. If this crisis affords us the opportunity to erect new and better rules, standards, and patterns to guide our social order, then we should make the most of it.

What we miss, I think, is not the old order in its totality (unless, of course, we were among those who happened to be well served by that order of things and simultaneously failed to reckon with the costs it imposed on others).

Instead, I’ve come think about what we miss as being both the ordinary and the common. It’s true that we happen to use these three words more or less interchangeably in the course of conversation. Normal, common, ordinary—they are each synonyms of one another.

But there are some nuances of meaning that it will be useful for us to tease out. It makes perfect sense, for example, to say that it was normal for us to undervalue the ordinary and ignore the common.

The ordinary implies both what we take for granted but should not and also what is well-ordered. All about us are ordinary things of this sort that, if we were to attend to them, would open up worlds to us and reveal a remarkable order of things that exists neither by our power nor for us and which, for that very reason, may renew and sustain us.

The common suggests not only that of which there is much, but, more importantly, that which is shared, open, or public. It is that which binds us together and forms us into a community because it is not, and perhaps cannot be, owned by any of us.

By contrast, we have marveled, sometimes rightly perhaps, at all that we have fabricated, all that is virtually extra-ordinary—literally spectacular and partaking of no greater order beyond itself unless it is the order of commerce. Yet, these very things tire us and leave us restless, even more so now that we turn to them at a time when our hearts and minds crave far more substantial realities. They do not satisfy and rarely bring joy.

Consider birdsong, if only because from the back porch of my apartment where I now sit and where a cardinal flits about a few yards away on the branch of an oak tree, I can hear it clearly.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no ornithological expertise. My interest in birds is chiefly complemented by my awareness of how few species I could name or even fewer birdsongs I could identify.

Nonetheless, I hear them now more than ever. I sit here and I watch them more closely. They’ve always been here and their song has always filled the air, but I had neither eyes to see nor ears to hear. I see them now and I hear them precisely because I now take the time to look and to listen.

Birdsong is ordinary and it is common. It arises out of an order I cannot create and I cannot own it. If my neighbor comes out to her porch, she too will hear it, and her enjoyment will not diminish mine nor will my enjoyment diminish hers. And, what’s more, should we both be here listening to the birdsong, we would now have something in common, something neither of us possessed and yet which by becoming a common object of our attention would form a bond between us, even if only for a moment.

These ordinary and common goods tend to be mine neither to create nor to possess. They are, interestingly, only mine to enjoy or to destroy.

And I find, too, that there is greater joy in ordinary things commonly pursued than extraordinary things privately consumed.

This time, for many of us, is a time during which we find ourselves rediscovering both the ordinary and the common, perhaps realizing that we’d discounted their worth for far too long. We were not attuned to the beauty of an order which we did not impose. We were unable to value the goods on which we could put no price or which we could not claim for ourselves.

But now forcibly thrust into an encounter with such ordinary and common things, we might be better positioned to work toward not just a new normal but a better one, too.

Once again, comments are open. I’d be happy to read your own thoughts on these matters or examples of common and ordinary things you’ve come to value more deeply in these extraordinary times.

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