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I recently had a wonderful - albeit painful - reminder of the beauty in the everyday things of life. After waking early one ordinary Saturday morning, feeding the dog and cats, and enjoying my cup of coffee, I read a column by Omid Safi, the D--irector of Islamic Studies at Duke University, entitled “The Spirituality of the Ordinary is Luminous”. In it, Safi describes the wonder in the “extra-ordinary” experiences of life, whether they be places, relationships, or our spiritual journeys. He states:
“It is easy to love the extraordinary. It is easy to pursue a spiritual path that is about the sensory overload of the extraordinary. It is easy to fall in love with spiritual practices that lead one to transcendence and ecstasy. It is easy to soar. It is easy to seek the ‘high.’ And there is something lovely about experiencing the extraordinary, to remember that we have spiritual faculties in us open to the realms beyond. But what does that say about the ordinary? Where does that leave the everyday? How do we experience the ground? The far less dramatic, the unsexy, the “boring” words like discipline, ritual, community — these are where the ideals of our spiritual path meet the reality of our daily lives.”
I, of course, am pulled to the community part of this statement. Safi asks, “Let us love the ordinary. Let us love the closeness of God and the sacred, here and now. Let us cherish the everyday, the every breath, the where we are.” I posted his lovely column on my social media places and went forward with my day.
The weather forecast was incredible, almost perfect. My wife Christine and I had a full day of yard work on tap. For those who know me, you know how much I love getting things done and how much trouble I have slowing down. As I got up from my chair on the deck to get rolling with the yard work, my back seized up - I felt like someone shot me. I gasped in pain and slowly sat back down.
“What was that?!” I thought. I stretch my lower back six days a week and work out each of those six days – I like to think I’m in good shape! I took a few deep breaths, hoping it was just a momentary jolt of pain. I focused, willing the pain away, and then tried to stand back up – immediately I realized that was a bad idea. The pain radiated around my lower back and my rib cage to my stomach, and I had no idea why. Some of you may be saying, “Chris, didn't you get thrown off that mechanical bull at the Beyond Housing fundraising event the night before this pain started?” I did, but I walked around for three hours later that night and woke up the next morning feeling fine. It wasn’t clear what had happened, but it was clear that my day was shot. I couldn’t stand up straight or walk without the help of a makeshift cane.
My wife gently but firmly told me to go inside and sit down. I stubbornly said no, insisting I was going to enjoy this beautiful day no matter what. Sitting did not bring me any pain, just a little discomfort, so I sat in the morning sun on our back patio and came to the frustrating reality that all the things I wanted to get done that day were not going to happen.
Once I let my anger go, I was able to actually look out our humble backyard and see its simple beauty. Trees…flowers…bushes…a water fountain. I heard the wind rustling through trees, saw their branches sway, and heard the birds singing. My wife sat under our gazebo making some jewelry.I occasionally glanced at my phone, but there wasn’t much that interested me. I just sat – something I rarely do – with the back of my chair touching the back my house so I could see everything. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw three robins land on my neighbor's lawn. They took a couple hops, got close to my wooden slatted fence, and paused only a moment before hopping through the fence and down to my yard. The robins enthusiastically chirped what I assumed was their way of saying, “I don't see any of those cats, do you?” My dog, Rocky, remained oblivious to their sounds and their presence as they continued their hop/pause/hop journey across my yard. Thirty or so feet into their trek I thought to myself, “They know they can fly, right?” I was only half-joking, because I watched their hopping – rather than flying – trek across my yard continue, complete with chirping and ever-so-brief stops to peck at the grass for food as they progressed toward their goal of the fountain. Finally reaching their destination after this gargantuan journey, they all jumped up near the top and began drinking.
I was probably watching something that happens every day, but in my haste to get things done, I’d missed it. Still trapped in my seat due to my throbbing back, I kept watching – and noticed that one of the robins was slightly bigger than the other two, with its red breast also deeper in color. That had to be a parent, I said to myself. The chirping continued, and it was easy to see that they were talking to each other. They stayed around the fountain for another thirty minutes or so drinking and looking for food. One of the younger robins was clearly more adventurous and wandered further away from mom or dad. The brave bird’s sibling vigorously chattered, seeming to say to the wayward robin, “Where are you going? It's dangerous over there!” I smiled and thought of Safi’s admonition to love the ordinary, so to honor his work and help myself, I spent a majority of the day listening, watching, and realizing the blessing of truly being be able to see the ordinary.
While the ordinary I took in that day was the beauty of nature, Safi’s words made me think about the folks who live and work in the communities served by Beyond Housing. I think of the great smile of Ms. Sylvia, a checker at the Save-a-Lot. She is always in good spirits and has great interactions with customers. I think of Charles, who works at the 24:1 Cinema and who has been working hard to achieve great things for himself and his family. I think of Debra, who always volunteers for Beyond Housing events and is endlessly optimistic about the future of her community. I think of Mama Lisa, a math teacher at the Normandy Schools Collaborative, who cares for and pushes her students to be their best.
I think of Dr. Pearson, who came out of retirement to help lead the schools and once again make them the pride of the community. I think of Ms. Jackson, a longtime resident who continually makes all of us work harder – herself included – for the place she calls home. I think of Rev. Shields and his unwavering commitment to his community. I think of Rosalyn, who stood up and galvanized others to become leaders in their community. I think of Jessica who chose to buy a home in our community and make it her family’s home. I think about Shavon who is raising her children in our community and working so hard to forge a better life for them all.
All of these folks, and so many more, ordinary people that we pass each day are making extra-ordinary things happen with their daily lives. The magic of their persistence and courage of their actions is indeed worthy, not only of our recognition, but our most humble gratitude. I’m determined to remind myself to pause and see the wonder of the day-to-day existence of those I pass each and every day. I know I will be filled with wonder as they make “extra-ordinary” lives for themselves and all those around them.
Let's do as Safi implores us: “Have a beautiful ordinary life. May you live in awe. May it be filled with wonder. May it overflow with radical amazement. May we have an awesome life.” Please don’t to wait to hurt your back to come this realization!
I’ve been working in community development in the St. Louis area for 25 years, and I’ve been the CEO of Beyond Housing since 1993. While I’m proud of our accomplishments, I don’t claim to be an expert. At Beyond Housing, the experts we listen to are the voices of the community members we serve. I’ll be raising issues here that I believe matter to our community. I hope you’ll join the conversation. We do reserve the right not to post comments containing offensive language. To paraphrase Dr. King, we can disagree without being disagreeable.