Here begins a seven-part series from a book-in-progress whose provisional title is Want What You Have: A Guide to Contentment. I liked my original title better, but my wife nixed it, saying neither she nor anyone else would buy it. That original title was How To Fail Successfully. On the internet I looked up the phrase “how to fail” and was not very surprised to find not a single book bearing this title. By contrast, the three words “how to succeed” are featured in hundreds of titles.
Joel ben Izzy, in his wonderful book The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness, relates a Zen story he had often heard but never understood. It seems a student seeking enlightenment went to visit a great Zen master. Knowing he must let the master speak first, the student waited. But the master did not speak and for a long time they sat in silence. Eventually the master offered the student a bowl of rice, and quietly they ate.
Everyone has an ordinary life. The Pope has an ordinary life. Movie stars and rock stars have ordinary lives. Presidents and great artists and workers of miracles have ordinary lives. The person you are most jealous of has an ordinary life—every bit as ordinary as yours.
We are marvelous creatures, fearfully and wonderfully made. Yet so much of what we do is utterly mundane. These ten amazing fingers of ours—how do we use them? Even brain surgeons and concert pianists must brush their teeth, eat, bathe, wipe—an endless diurnal series of basic maintenance tasks. The contrast between the banality of our lives and the glory for which we seem destined is a staggering paradox that faces us squarely every day, and increasingly as we grow older.
The nice thing about ordinary life is that there’s so much of it. It’s all around us, all the time, so if we can actually learn to like it, we’re home free. We’ll never lack for anything ever again. We’ll have something the Bible refers to as “great gain” and puts in the same category as godliness: contentment (1 Tim. 6:6).
We have this expression “living life to the full.” But how can we live life to the full when life is, apparently, so full of mundane moments and plain things and unremarkable events? Happiness is only possible in the present moment, yet the overwhelming majority of our moments are utterly ordinary. Therefore, if we want to be happy, we must learn to love the ordinary. It’s good to have lofty dreams and aspirations, but if we let future goals so control us that they overshadow our present reality, we will not be happy.
The reason it is so vital for believers to focus on the ordinary is that the spiritual life cannot be understood in extraordinary terms. Who was looking for the Messiah to be born as a baby in a manger? Or who could have expected that He would die the common death of a criminal? On the lookout for the extraordinary, we miss the hand of God.