A tree budding with white flowers

Being Ordinary

By Rabbi Susan Landau Moss 

Springtime is about to bloom, though up here in New England it often comes in fits and starts. It feels even closer in Israel, as our calendar reminded us at Tu B’shevat. And Pesach preparation once again monopolizes our to-do lists. We are invited to channel our ancestors and feel liberated from the isolation and weight of yet another COVID winter. Cases are dropping and we cautiously consider emerging again. I feel a charge in the air (and certainly in the media) urging us that we can make this time extraordinary.

“‘Extraordinary’ is overrated.”

This headline recently caught my eye. Extraordinary sounded like a good thing to me, if a bit unattainable. I then proceeded to listen to an interview with author Rainesford Stauffer, during which she spoke about her book, An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional. The book is essentially a recommendation to aim for a perfectly ordinary life. I was drawn into this topic, which sounds so very counterintuitive. This book is geared toward young adults, yet it felt so relevant. In some ways, aren’t we all continuing to discern the kinds of people we want to be in the world, and wondering how we measure up against society’s expectations? I listened on.

First, I resonated with the nagging feeling that this supposedly “quiet” period of cancelled plans, limited activities, and general pandemic living could be good for helping me “work on myself.” In reality, the pandemic has not been quiet for many of us—especially not for those of us working in healthcare, those of us who contracted COVID, those of us who cared for someone we love who had COVID, and the rest of us, who feel the weight of this broken world on our shoulders month after month with little respite. And when we do get some quiet time, we need it to recharge.

So much pressure! And even more than that, Stauffer reminds us, we are taught to look always to the future. We might not have what we want right now, but we can, with time. In ways big and small, we are told we can always be getting better. An advancing career path, healthier meal-prepping, better parenting, better sleep, better body, and more of that ever-elusive Band-Aid “self-care.” With just a little more work, we are meant to believe we can be better versions of ourselves.

I have been wondering about this. What do we need from extraordinary? And do any of us ever find it? Some do—but not most of the people I work with each day: the young mother who is dying and simply wants to finish the memory boxes she is making for her children; the countless family members who have told me about their loved ones in the hospital with COVID—each and every one had the kindest heart, made the best food, was beloved by all who knew her; not the patient who was told she is in remission, but doesn’t feel well enough for her favorite outing, simply going to the dog park; and not the man whose wife has dementia, who simply wants permission to find hope again. None of these people talk about degrees, promotions, or public recognition. They tell me, “This is so hard. She’s still my mom.”

The ordinary things that draw families together are the extraordinary things that mean the most. Deep down, I think we all know this. We do not have to be the best in our fields, the most published, well-regarded, or well-known. We simply need to be present for the people we love, to dedicate ourselves to a few causes that stretch our awareness beyond our small and particular lives. We need to be quiet and listen, reach out, and hold each other in silence when there are no words.

Sometimes, we need to take a step back and marvel at the miraculous beauty of spring, finding one tiny bud that takes our breath away. Spring is not actually a season demanding us to “get a move on” and pick up self-improvement projects abandoned in winter’s hibernation. Spring unfolds around us, and only demands that we are present to notice. It is a reminder to bring the best of ourselves out of hiding again: we are good enough, already. Spring, in and of itself, is really quite ordinary.

Our Seder reminds us to marvel at the ordinary as well: the miracle that once-slaves can taste freedom, that green things grow after the winter, that stories can taste sweet when passed from generation to generation, and that it is never too late to offer praise. I want to lean into those simple truths this season. I hope part of the liberation this year invites us to simply return to what we know is good, to have patience with ourselves, and to be more present.

That would be extraordinary.

Rabbi Susan Landau Moss is the palliative care chaplain of Bridgeport Hospital, part of the Yale New Haven Health system. Susan is a former assistant rabbi of Temple Micah, and together with Rabbi Danny Moss, cherishes an ongoing relationship with the Micah family. Photo by Julie Blake Edison on Unsplash.

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