Chesterton: Extraordinary in the Ordinary

Reading Time: 4 minutes

By Emma Jermann, Wyoming Catholic College

“There is no such thing as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person,” G.K. Chesterton says in his book Heretics. He is commenting on Lord Byron’s claim that humanity is divided into two tribes: the bores and the bored. Byron delves into the heart of what has been a growing idea—or fear, depending—in the modern era: that as we as a species grow in knowledge and power, we lose interest in the things that used to entrance us. We have lost, as Chesterton points out, our sense of wonder for the ordinary.

Chesterton is not, like the poet-cynic, talking about the loss of the extraordinary in our modern world. If anything, we are a world obsessed with the extraordinary. We are the era of heroes, of Chosen Ones and Marvel superheroes and underdogs with secretly fantastic powers who rise to save the day. Everyone wants to be the hero; nobody likes to be the helpless, nameless civilian who gets saved. We worship the extraordinary and shun the ordinary as boring. The problem, of course, is that most things are disappointingly ordinary, and we spend most of our time—according to Byron—being bored.

And, according to Byron, being bored is not a bad thing. To be one of the Bored is to have seen what the world has to offer, ordinary and extraordinary, and be unsatisfied by all of it. They will never be heroes, but then, Byron says with a shrug, the heroes we read about aren’t real. Life in the end is never the fairytale we imagine growing up. There is a nitty-grittiness to it that tends to blot out our cherished ideals. If Byron was alive today, he might change his definition to idealists and realists, as we think of them: the yet-to-be-crushed, young, hopeful, starry-eyed idealist, and the older, wiser realist who has made the most of a disappointing reality.

Byron’s division is not a cheerful picture, but it’s usually seen as a realistic one. After all, who will argue that life is a Marvel movie or fairytale? Who truly believes that reality is better than fiction? Who would take the everyday humdrum of the ordinary over the unique and extraordinary?

And, as usual, Chesterton comes up to bat.

He argues the problem is not the ordinary. In fact, he says, “Nothing is more keenly required than a defense of Bores” who, unlike the Bored, still finds with his “starry enthusiasm” something worth wondering about. Chesterton sums up his argument:

“We might, no doubt, find it a nuisance to count all the blades of grass or all the leaves of trees; but this would not be because of our boldness or gaiety, but because of our lack of boldness and gaiety. The Bore would go onward, bold and gay, and find the blades of grass as splendid as the swords of an army. The Bore is stronger and more joyous than we are; he is a demigod—nay, he is a god. For it is the gods who do not tire of the iteration of things; to them the nightfall is always new, and the last rose as red as the first.”

So what does he mean?

If we came across a man studiously counting every blade of grass in a field, we would probably assume a few things, none of them particularly bold or joyous. No one sincerely likes to watch paint dry, or spend time on something we see no satisfactory point in. And yet, Chesterton says it is not the Bored who scorn such things, but the Bores who do such things that have it right.

Chesterton is not necessarily demanding you run outside and begin counting blades of grass (though he probably wouldn’t mind if you did). What he is saying is that we have lost our ability to see ordinary things as extraordinary. No, he’s not asking us to make mountains out of molehills; he is asking us to look at a molehill, and be genuinely surprised that a mole can make such a thing. He is asking us to look at what we have deemed ordinary and realize it’s far more extraordinary than we imagined.

C.S. Lewis gives what is my favorite example of this. Have you ever been playing with a toddler and been exhausted by their endless energy? You’ve made the same silly face a hundred times, and each time the toddler, with the same exuberant enthusiasm, demands, “Again!” You, sick and tired of this game, half-heartedly do it again, and the toddler giggles all over again, and says, “Again!”

God must be like that. Every day, a sunflower opens the exact same way, and after the first few times—or maybe after just once—we grow bored and stop watching. And every day without fail, God sees it and smiles and says, “Again!”

Maybe that makes Him one of the Bores. It certainly makes us the Bored. But seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary is simpler than you think. We do it every year.

I’m writing this the day after Christmas. Outside, the blue-and-green lights are still glowing on the houses across the street. The same Christmas songs I hear every single year are playing faintly downstairs. Christmas day is over, the cookies have mostly been eaten, the presents are unwrapped and scattered in various corners of the house, and yet, people are still smiling a little more than usual.

My family has a Christmas tradition. Every year, my dad would pile everyone into the van and take us down a few blocks to see a nearby neighborhood. Every single house would be covered in glittering lights and decorations. The lawns would have inflatable Santas and elves and reindeer hung in mid-flight. My little siblings and I would press our noses to the car windows as we drove slowly past and ooh and ahh at everything.

I pass by that same neighborhood almost every day, and even though it’s been a few years since we last had the tradition, and some of the Christmas decorations have already been taken down, I still pause to look at the houses. Without the decorations, they’re just another block of cookie-cutter houses, indistinguishable from the block over. And yet, there’s something almost magical in seeing them in the daylight, unadorned. For me, it’s a reminder that even technically ordinary things have the power to be extraordinary.

Christmas is a season of the ordinary-turned-extraordinary. It is one of the few times we silently and unanimously agree to give up being the Bored in favor of the Bores. We have all heard the Christmas carols a million times before, and seen the same classic movies and gone through the same traditions every single year.

And yet, every year, as the Christmas season comes to a close, we smile and say, “Again!”

Edited by: GraceAnne Sullivan

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