The Ordinary

Last year the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton tweeted an extract from his ‘Book of Life’ drawing attention to the beauty of the ordinary, and this stuck in my mind. As a therapist I find this theme appealing because among many of the clients I have seen there is so often a downplaying of, or failure to acknowledge, their unique and valuable qualities and achievements – things that they take for granted or dismiss as ordinary.

And yet the ordinary is the stuff of our lives, the things we all do in our own unique ways – how we sleep, eat, work and love, how we communicate and perhaps how we express ourselves spiritually; the everyday things we do to sustain ourselves and to support and care for those close to us, and maybe also those not so close to us; expressions of care, kindness and charity that we may allow others to take for granted and that we may undertake without thinking, perhaps taking them for granted ourselves.

There is a more fundamental point here that touches all of us. In our very early lives we develop styles of attachment to those who care for us. If we are lucky our carers will do all the ‘ordinary’ things that need to be done to keep us safe and to confirm that we are loved unconditionally, enough for us to be able to take that love for granted and to understand that we deserve it just by virtue of being our unique selves. There will be a distinctive way in which these ordinary things are done for us and it will be a nurturing and fulfilling relationship. If we are lucky.

This then forms the basis of our security and provides the base from which we derive our confidence to explore the world. Without this we will be tentative and it will be more difficult to understand and relate to the outside world.

De Botton’s Book of Life includes reference to the 17th century artists Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch, amongst others. He talks of how Vermeer ‘wanted to show us what could be appealing and honourable about … keeping a house tidy, sweeping the yard, babysitting, sewing or preparing lunch’ while ‘de Hooch was the first artist in the history of humanity to point out the charms of organising a cupboard … folding and putting away towels and bed sheets’.

So perhaps, when we are finding it difficult to value ourselves as we should, it is worth bearing in mind (in de Botton’s words) ‘the immense skill and true nobility’ involved in handling the ordinariness of life, because ‘ordinary life is heroic in its own way’.