Explore the Common
A lesson in paying attention to the ordinary, valuing what seems normal, & undisguising the world.
Part One: National Parks, Celebrities, and “The Common”
There is an author named Wendell Berry, an agrarian movement leader who lives in Kentucky in an intentionally different way than the relentless culture around him.
He has an essay where he mentions his uncertainty about national parks.
Now, he is a conservationist by default, but even his understanding of conservation goes against modern definitions. National Parks are meant to conserve a piece of land against an industrial plight and is usually centered on a specifically unique element of earth — geysers, mountains, treasured lands, or other geographic landscapes that are considered anomalies that are special compared to the normal landscape around it.
And this is where Berry disagrees.
He confronts our society, stating that conservation should be focused on all land, especially usable pieces of land that are steadily being made unusable. But in this, he also confronts a perspective that we have, not only towards land, but towards the majority of the world around us.
If I am walking down the street, you might say hello to me. If you know me, you might engage in more intentional conversation. But it is seen as ordinary.
If a highly talented musician or television personality walks down the street, people want pictures and autographs. Something has made that person more desirable and unique and important than the hundreds of other people walking down that same street. They are a “celebrity” in some fashion (otherwise known as “famous for being famous”).
But here’s what I’ve found:
It is usually the individuals with the imposed label of “normal” that are the most interesting. The stories behind the average person walking down the street are anything but average. Yet, because we have claimed them as common, we don’t stop to discover them. Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X are famous and did beautiful, monumental things, but talk to the others, the swaths of people that were on the ground during the civil rights movement, and that is where you will find the most profound stories.
Or I remember seeing a middle aged man in a fish market unloading tuna. It was his job…this is just what he did, like so many other people, to pay his bills and continue to survive. Yet, as I am watching him, he is unloading the tuna, taking a quick look, and the placing the fish in what initially seemed like random unloading.
However, in that quick look, somehow the worker had discerned the quality and grade of the tuna and was placing it, rather than in an open or random location, in a pile that matched what he knew it would sell for.
The story behind that — how he got there in his life, how he developed such skill and finesse — is anything but ordinary.
We live in a celebrity culture where, often by subjective or inconsequential means, someone rises above others as somehow special.
They appear to be an anomaly to the ordinary, normal landscape like a national park.
In consequence, we’ve lost the uniqueness and connection with the beauty that surrounds us, dismissed as common.
We do it with people, with places, with objects, with relationships, and, even with ourselves.
This is why Wendell Berry doesn’t think National Parks are all that great. Because the grass in your backyard or the tree down the street or the insects inhabiting the ground under your feet are just as amazing and complex and unordinary as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. Are those places just claimed as magnificent because we are so accustomed to the grass and trees and insects around us that we stopped discovering them? So we search out something unusual and elevate it as something worth caring about?
Or is it the case that even the tree that enters your vision on every single ordinary day is not even extraneous is, in fact, in exhaustible in its standpoints?
Even that which we think is normal, ordinary, and common; a lifetime would not be enough to experience and discover its depth.
Maybe it is true that we are familiar and used to certain things while other things seem profound and unique and special, but maybe they aren’t all that different. Maybe the only difference is our familiarity and our failure to recognize the incomprehensibleness and depth and complexity and intricacies of what, to us, has become ordinary.
Part Two: What Do We Have in Common? Our Dust
In the Christian Tradition, they have a day called Ash Wednesday which maybe needs reclaimed in our culture. It is a day where we are reminded that everything, which even resonates with our sophisticated science (though science would use a more technical term), is just dust. You are dust. The beautiful landscapes are dust. The celebrities with the power and influence and voice that is a bit arbitrary to their elevation, are dust.
It is all common.
Yet it is all beautiful.
We are surrounded, not by average and “normal”, but by gems.
We are immersed in the common — it is all ordinary — but it is all untouched magnificence and depth just waiting to be discovered.
Gandhi articulated this by saying,
“IT ISN’T SACRED AND SECULAR…IT IS SACRED AND ALL THE WAYS WE FAIL TO SEE THE SACRED.”
Everyone has a story.
Everything is teaching us…especially the ordinary, untouched, and unassumed.
Everything has a force to it just waiting to shape us.
We simply have to discover it.
Wendell Berry articulates that you could spend a lifetime only in your backyard and still not discover the immense complexity and amazement that is hidden there even in every blade of grass. You don’t have to go to the national parks to see wonder…it is right under your feet.
May we be more open to exploring what might be forgotten or dismissed in the world around us.
And may we undisguise it in a way that moves us all forward.
Becoming more human begins with opening ourselves up to explore the common.