“Seven Habits of Highly Ordinary People” by Susan Maginn

Posted May 2013. Originally given as a sermon to a Unitarian Universalist congregation

Some sermons start with clever stories. Some start with quotes from inspired sages. This one starts in my laundry room.

In the community where I live there is a laundry room and since I have been too lazy to hook up my gas dryer I regularly go to this laundry room to dry my family’s clothes. There’s a bulletin board in the laundry room with a little piece of paper saying:

“If you are content with being nobody in particular, content not to stand out, you align yourself with the power of the universe.  What looks like weakness to the ego is in fact the only true strength.”

(Eckhart Tolle)

We love to celebrate when someone is able to stand out, to win, to excel, to be the best. But when we are working so hard to be the best, what happens to the ordinary parts of daily life? Do they get thrown to the wayside?

When this is taken to an extreme we have the classic story of someone who has worked so hard to excel in the career that he loves, but he comes to a point in life when he is sad to realize that he really doesn’t feel a connection with his partner or his own children. He doesn’t know how so much of his life’s energy has gone to his work.

He has methodically followed each professional opportunity and accolade, trusting that his talent is the true foundation of his life, assuming that someday there would be time for the relationships and the intimacy that he yearns for, but that day never magically arrives. There are always more professional opportunities to seek, and he is realizing that if he is ever going to find a connection with his family, he is going to have to start saying no to some of the professional opportunities so he can slow down, stay home, and be available for the people he loves most.

A strong foundation of a mature spiritual life is one that is grounded in our ordinary, everyday life experiences, our relationships, our meals, our health and wellbeing. It is in the ordinary that we find the true foundation of our lives.

‘Being special’ and ‘standing out’ is more like a momentary high in the big picture of a person’s lifetime. These mountaintop moments happen and it is certainly wonderful and worthy of celebration, but it is the long stretches of valley that truly brings us together.

——

Being ordinary means cultivating our soul’s foundation out of the quiet work of our lives, the private moments where there is not anyone there to applaud our considerable efforts.

Such a foundation is crafted with life’s simple moments: cleaning the kitchen, making meals, shopping for food; staying connected to a loved one in the midst of an argument; tending to a child who struggles to learn; going for a hike by yourself and stopping along the way to do a simple ritual in thanks for the forest that has nourished your spirit.

What all these simple, private, and ordinary experiences have in common is that despite our attention and care, there is no promotion coming your way. No raise and no praise. In this quiet realm we are invited to turn away from the delights of public accomplishment, to tend to the invisible details, to listen deeply to our own truth, to God, to the power of the universe.

“If you are content with being nobody in particular, content not to stand out, you align yourself with the power of the universe.  What looks like weakness to the ego is in fact the only true strength.”

When I say the word greed, what is the first thing to pop into your mind?

It probably has to do with having lots of stuff, with the accumulation or even hoarding of material riches. Recently I’ve been wondering about how the nature of greed may be farther reaching than I’ve previously presumed.

Consider that we may be operating from greed when we seek out the praise, respect, and recognition of other people. Perhaps we want to hoard prestige and praise and so we seek out a certain career path or a certain degree or a certain social justice cause.

I hear this resonating through William Henry Channing’s passage when he advises that we aspire to being “To be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich”. When we are worthy in the eyes of God, in the eyes of our loved ones, then the respect and esteem of others can come and go as it will or will not. When our spiritual foundation is strong then our confidence is sure to follow and we don’t need to hoard respect just to prove to ourselves that we are worthy.

——

The Seven Habits of Effective People (in case you are not one of the 25 million people to have read the book) are: be proactive, begin with the end in mind, put first things first, think win-win, seek first to understand then to be understood, synergize, and sharpen the saw.

It seems to me that the strength of this work, and I would guess much of the success literature genre, is that it can help someone who is consistently stuck. What I find unhelpful about the material is that there seems to encourage us to do one thing in order to get another. As if you are to tend to your ordinary life, to family and your health in order to be successful at work. This causal relationship between ordinary life and work life implicitly says that your success at work is what is really important. What if we tended well to our ordinary life just for the sake of tending well to our ordinary life? Period.

As much as I would love to discover an operating manual for living a human life, I don't think there is a formula for any of us to get what we want. I see too many people who have innate talent, have worked really hard, done their best, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and they have still not accomplished what they intended.

That said, I’ll give it a try. I hereby declare that my list of 7 habits for ordinary people would be: cook your food, clean your mess, do what you love (but not necessarily for a living), give things away, give thanks, be patient, share.

With all of these I’m hoping to steer us toward an appreciation of life’s most basic beauties, sharing stillness and silence in love.

——

Master Linji, a Zen Master who lived in China in the 9th century said:

“Having nothing to do is the basis of a noble person.  The most noble person is the person who has nothing to do.  The only thing you should avoid is thinking about what you are going to do. All you need to do is be an ordinary person, be sovereign wherever you are and that place is the seat of awakening.  If you keep thinking about and calculating how to direct your search to what lies outside of you, you have made a great mistake.”

The ‘most noble person’ portrayed in this ancient teaching occurs to me to be profoundly still, profoundly receptive, and also profoundly available.

At first glance, there is something that I don’t like about this though. Is this saying that when we encounter something that is wrong we are just supposed to be sovereign and still and avoid thinking about what we are going to do?

Well, yes, actually. You might find that to be a disturbing answer. You might say, “How can people aspire to be still when they should really be standing and demanding change?”

The portrait of the “most noble person” reminds me of so many great leaders who in the face of injustice have responded with creativity and clarity. Many of these people are ones that we all know because their sacrifice and commitment made them famous – King, Ghandi, Mandela, Tutu, Milk, and on and on. They have been called heroes, even prophets, and rightfully so.

But there are far more people who lived quiet lives, many of the nameless ones are women, many are poor, people who stand for justice and then quietly return to the valley, returning home to do the slow, invisible and yet foundational work of ordinary life.

Regardless of whether they are famous heroes or nameless ones, I imagine that what all of these people have in common is that their ordinary experiences were the foundation of their life.

For example, with King, he was a preacher in Selma. Yes, not all the pastors in Selma had gone to Boston for their education, but ultimately King was just being a good preacher like his father was. He wasn’t trying to cook up a movement so that he could be the center of it all. He was there raising his family and loving his church and living his ordinary life on the day when Rosa Parks rode through Selma on her way home from work and would not stand up.

Far too often I have seen people get all excited about a social justice cause and I wonder why. I don’t wonder if the cause is worthy of their excitement. But rather, I wonder what is motivating that particular person into action.

There is a woman in a congregation who was passionate about emergency preparation and building safety. She would attend many committee meetings and talk in great detail about the dangers of the building and how safety needed to be the top priority of that particular committee. People understood her concern and respected her knowledge, but after a while people tried to avoid talking to her, wondering why she was so adamant about this particular issue.

One day when I was talking to her she shared that within the past year she had been diagnosed with degenerative arthritis. She had seen friends of hers fall and break a hip and never return to the same level of vitality.

The fact that she had something personal at stake in this cause seemed to be her greatest strength and also her greatest weakness. She was motivated to make the building safe for personal reasons, but her underlying fear was so strong that it seemed to push people away.

As a meditation teacher of mine once said, “If you want to save the world, start by freeing the world from your opinions about it.”

If you begin this level of reflection and asking what motivates you forward in the world, it may slow down your commitment to a certain cause. You may find a cause that you care deeply about, but you don't jump right in. You wait. You reflect on your motivation.

You return to your ordinary life, to the ground of your being, perhaps in prayer, in meditation, in reflection. Perhaps asking, “Why is this important to me? What is calling me forward? Where is the ground of my confidence?”

This deliberate return to the rhythms of your ordinary life might slow you down from jumping into a cause, but when you do begin, it will not just be in pain. You will move forward with your whole being.

I wish for all of you to have a foundation of strength in your life as you grow in the ways of love, bringing joy and peace wherever you may go.