Ordinariness in Exile: Some Thoughts on the Banality of Goodness

        There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of righting a plague is, common decency.”
        “What do you mean by ‘common decency’?” Rambert’s tone was grave.
        “I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.”–Albert Camus
, The Plague

In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt famously examines the “banality of evil.” If I understand her correctly, what she means by this is something like the ordinariness of evil. The horrific evil of the Holocaust was not perpetrated by inhuman monsters with horns and talons, but by ordinary people (like Adolf Eichmann) just doing their jobs.

I take her point, and I agree. Evil is ordinary, or it least in can be, and horrible things can happen when people perform daily tasks with indifference to the consequences of their actions. But goodness can be ordinary too. In times of great chaos and upheaval, the banality of ordinary life is a profound human need, and the greatest heroes in such times are those who simply show up and do their ordinary jobs.

This is perhaps the most important theme of Albert Camus’ classic novel The Plague — which has recently become a bestseller again nearly 75 years after its publication. The Plague narrates the outbreak of bubonic plague in Oran–a North African town that Camus takes pains to present as painfully normal. “Its ordinariness,” he writes in the novel’s opening paragraph, “is what strikes one first about the town of Oran.” And, at first, this seems like a bad thing.

The Plague becomes a fictional laboratory in which the author deprives these ordinary people of their ordinariness and shows us how they respond. Some of the characters see it as a great battle and look for opportunities to display their heroism; others see it as a way to become rich by smuggling goods, and people, past the sentries set up to enforce a quarantine on the entire town. A local priest calls the plague divine retribution, and another character spends his time in quarantine working and reworking the first sentence of what he believes will be his great novel.

But the characters who matter  the most— the ones that we might normally call the heroes of the story — are the people who just show up every day during the plague and do their jobs. This includes Dr. Rieux, the novel’s main protagonist. But it also includes sanitation workers, merchants, city officials, and everybody else who commits, during an extraordinary time, to do ordinary things — things that just need doing so that life can go on in some semblance of an ordinary way.

As the plague progresses, ordinariness becomes the town’s only salvation, as the greatest threat of the plague is its tendency to become the people’s only reality. When that happens — when the plague becomes normal — death is the only thing that people have to look forward to. Ordinariness becomes exceptional, and vital, as it represents a life that is not governed by pestilence. 

And this is what ordinary actually means. An ordinary life is one in which everything is in order, exactly the way it should be. The word ordinary comes from the same root as the word ordain. An ordinary life is the kind of existence that God has ordained for human beings. Ordinary people doing ordinary things can result in most of the things that make living important. An ordinary life creates a space in which people can do meaningful things.

This is important to remember as the world faces its first global pandemic in a hundred years. In the space of a week, many of us lost the ordinariness that we depended on to give our lives structure. Suddenly we don’t go to work anymore, or out to dinner, or to concerts and movies and athletic events. We have lost the background of normalcy that defined even the most extraordinary things about us.

But this time — unlike the characters in Camus’ novel, and unlike the people in previous pandemics — we have an incredible set of technological tools that can help us replicate — at least to some degree — the normalcy of ordinary life. The situation is not ideal. I spent enough time in Zoom meetings and conference calls last week to know that video-screens aren’t the same thing as personal contact. But they are very good tools for re-establishing some part of the boring, uninspiring, day-to-day routine that one never really understands the value of until it is gone.

The heroes of our plague will certainly include the health-care workers who show up to the front lines every day and, at great risk to themselves, beat back the coronavirus one patient at a time. But these won’t be the only ones. We already have long lists of people working heroically in the background to keep mundane things going on in banal ways. They will be our salvation.

I’m talking about the teachers, from Pre-K through post-grad, who are spending most of their time learning new technologies so that students can still go to school. And the librarians who are making sure that their electronic collections are available to patrons for free while their actual buildings are closed. And the artists and musicians who are finding new ways to deliver their creative goods. And the people who, realizing that things like internet access and reliable computers are a lifeline right now are working to make sure that more people have access to these tools.

And your friends on social media who keep posting the same pictures of their food and their pets that they have always posted. And the people who call the loved ones they cannot visit. And the employees who are finding ways to work remotely. And the employers who are finding ways to still pay their people. And the cashiers, food handlers, stock clerks, and delivery personal who are making sure that we can continue to feed ourselves. And the floor sweepers, counter disinfectors, wall cleaners, and sanitation workers making sure that we don’t become infected by our own waste.

And so, so many more people who just have the courage and detrermination to show up and do their jobs.

And let us not forget the innovative people who are finding ways to replicate the spiritual communities that we can no longer access through our churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. It has become very clear to me how important these spiritual communities are to the nation’s emotional health during a time of real crisis. In such times, we want to gather, to comfort each other, to mourn with those who mourn, and all the rest. We need to be together. We need to find ways form congregations at a time when we cannot congregate.

All of this ordinariness takes an extraordinary amount of creativity to pull off under quarantine. What is emerging now is a sort of “Ordinariness in Exile” that will allow a quarantined world to continue the ritual, work, entertainment, and human connection that constitute an ordinary life. I fear that, if we do not do this — if we allow the virus and the quarantine to become our only reality — we will suffer the effects of the plague long after the virus dies out.

Extraordinary times, it turns out, do not always call for extraordinary measures, or even extraordinary people. They often call for ordinary measures and ordinary people finding ways to do ordinary things when everything around them seems to make ordinariness impossible.

Comments

  1. Tracey Snoyer says:

    The stock clerks in grocery stores. The food and staples industries who continue to produce to fill the shelves. The utility companies and its people.

  2. Thank you, Michael. Exactly right and very important.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Ordinarily and modestly profound insights. Thank you.

  4. I made sure to thank the lady in the checkout lane at the grocery store yesterday, just for showing up and working, taking the risk so we can eat.How true this is.

  5. A Fellow Traveler Along the Path says:

    Garbage collectors are rock stars! Getting food is important, but without having our refuse taken away we would be facing multiple pandemics at the same time. If you have any doubts, check out pics of New York City during the garbage strike in the 70s. It didn’t take long to turn a great city into an apocalyptic hellscape.

  6. wayfarer says:

    Thankyou to the plumbers and heating engineers ans supply chain workers who will hopefully be getting my boiler up and running in the next week! Hope we come out of this with a whole new appreciation for the glory of everyday things and people.

  7. Really like this, thank you.

  8. Thank you. A beautifully positive note in all this.

  9. Some great work! Kudos… Congrats!

    To say thanks, let me share my new single release from “FAUX PAS by Alias Wayne” coming out tomorrow 03-28-2020 … spotify:album:5781nml0eC9rTwzVVnu6zV

    Peace & good vibes to all ( :

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