Don’t Try to Be More Extraordinary (Just Try to Be More Human)


Photo Credit: Rob Briscoe via Compfight cc

We’re riding our bikes through the dead.

Our new town is a lot hillier than I remember it, and the cemetery is the flattest ground we can find for a family bike ride. The day is sunny and just the right amount of warm, as we wind our way on the one-lane asphalt road, through the fields of tombstones. My kids don’t even seem to notice, but I can’t take my eyes off the names and the dates on the weathered graves. Some have been there for more than a century, names I don’t know and names that, perhaps, no one can remember.

Some are more recent.

Less than two years ago, the judge who I trembled in front of during elementary school mock trials stepped off this mortal coil and into the mystery of what comes next. It seems like yesterday he sat above us—youthful, healthy, powerful. Time undoes all of these things. We’re riding through the dead and the awareness of it does to me what it always does:

It makes me want to seize the day.

I think of that scene in Dead Poet’s Society—the young boys looking at the pictures of young men long since passed, Robin Williams leaning in amongst them, in a ghostlike whisper exhorting them, “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

The urge to do so seizes me. Like it does every time I’m faced with my mortality.

But then I’m faced with my reality.

My emerging adolescent son is grumpy and disgruntled about being with the family because he is, well, an emerging adolescent. And if I play close attention, I can understand his position. We’re not easy to be with. Younger Son is complaining about every slope and my daughter, for heaven’s sake, hasn’t quit chattering since we left the house and at first it was adorable but fifteen minutes later it’s like fingernails on the chalkboard.

I can try to make everyone see the world my way. I can try to convince them this is all fleeting and we need to suck the marrow from all of it. I can try to make them all happy and joyful and awestruck at the wonder of things. But I’ve tried that before. I know how it goes. The one guaranteed way to make grumpy people grumpier is to try to make them less grumpy.

I want to make the day extraordinary and they’re going to keep it so…ordinary. I feel like giving up on turning the day into something it is not.

So, I do.

And it is the giving up that saves me—from the conflict I would have created by trying to make everyone feel a certain way, from thinking I’m not enough, and from acting like this life isn’t enough. In other words, it saves me from devaluing most of what it means to be human. Yes, the extraordinary is a gift some of us receive at rare, fleeting moments.

But our humanity is the ordinary gift we are, all of us, always receiving all the time.

It includes grumpy adolescent boys and tired legs and joy so bottomless it can’t stop talking. It includes yearning and hope and disappointment and despair. It includes fear of missing out, shame about being left out, and the humiliation of being pointed out. It includes success and failure, victory and loss, loneliness and unity. It includes every moment of every day.

Because the opposite of death isn’t life; it’s presence.

Your heart can beat and your mind can think, but if you aren’t aware of the moment in front of you, in all its grit and glory, you aren’t really alive.

So, I decide to be present to what is. All the ordinary ups and downs of this road we’re riding on and this life we’re moving through. I welcome all of it and something extraordinary happens. For a moment, I feel fully human.

Which is to say, fully alive.

As we ride our bikes through the dead.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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16 thoughts on “Don’t Try to Be More Extraordinary (Just Try to Be More Human)

  1. Ahh Kelly, another right on post! The drip, drip, drip of life can lull us into an existence dulled to the extraordinary moments of life. Thanks for reminding me of the importance of being in the moment and seizing the day!

  2. My wife and I also have a beautiful cemetary we walk in frequently. It never gets old, it always reminds. My mother is buried there and we have our future plot and stone. The date that comes after the dash is still the mystery

  3. I wish I had known this when I was raising children. Instead, I am learning it as a grandma. I had a long drive on Saturday and was fighting against ruminating. Every once in a while the clouds would catch my attention, and I would be present and at peace. I was ruminating about something that was not mine to take care of. Over the next two days, I kept telling myself, “Keep your mouth shut. Keep your mouth shut.” Boy was I present when I came home to see smiles and hear “I love you’s!” What a learning experience to begin to let go of controlling the family and allow them to be who they are, where they are, relating as they do. Of course, it’s different with adults than children. That blessed balance between guiding our families and allowing them to be and experience life the way they need to. It’s nice to know I’m not alone. Blessings as you, too, learn to walk this road.

  4. THANK YOU — what a thoughtful and helpful post. Changes the mindset and the framework perfectly.

  5. Its so tempting to think that because life is fleeting it must be epic, full of theatrical action and upbeat people rushing to make the most of each moment with us. But you’re so right: life is for living and the business of living can see all of us in the same place and at the same time but as the main characters in our own stories whose moods, motives, and meanings just don’t mesh moment to moment (alliterative spasm got a bit out of hand there!). And thank goodness. Thank goodness for our unscripted, unpredictable, and divergent paths as we join each other and then walk apart through life. What rich, wonderful, frustrating, and delightfully surprising companions we are to each other this way!

  6. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Kelly…were you a baseball player, you’d lead the league consistently in batting average and home runs. Your work, to borrow from you, is ordinary in an extraordinary way! I’m grateful to get a jump-start in the middle of the week with your personal journey that is all our journey. We’re all linked. BTW you’ve become a sort of celebrity here in Boulder…an out-of-town friend of mine in offering to pay for our dinner recently at the Mountain Sun was given the fortunate and surprising experience of that kindness you experienced here…and one of the wait staff sang your praises. They are truly grateful that you recognized their kindness.. Therein is a lesson…while we shouldn’t expect to be recognized for our kindness towards those we serve, every once in awhile, it’s nice to know someone does see its value. Peace, my friend.

  7. I needed to listen to this today. To just be present is living in the most extraordinary way. It’s been tough lately because I’ve been fighting my ideas of what my life was supposed to be from what is actually is and everyday I’m learning to experience what is and to embrace that experience and in so doing live the life I actually have and not the one in some dream I once had.

  8. Dear Dr. Kelly,
    I have been reading, enjoying and learning from your posts for several months now. Your timing at certain moments is impeccable…especially today. It is my birthday. For the last two years I have celebrated without my twin brother Todd.
    You are absolutely right about yearning and hope and disappointment and despair… I can’t help but have thoughts of wishing I could somehow turn back the hands of time and change the events of that tragic night. To have my best friend back. My twin paid the ultimate price to save other lives by giving up his own when a gunman showed up for revenge in a parking lot and my twin brother walked out to see it. My twin tackled him to the ground to disarm him. The young man shot my twin brother twice and ran. My twin brother died on the ground.
    You are also right about living… Todd would want me to be happy and to enjoy the time I have left on this earth. So I make it my mission by doing my best to wear the smile that used to frequent my face to all that passed by. It’s hard at times but I do try. If at first you don’t succeed….
    I wanted to thank you for your wisdom filled words that have helped me so many times. They benefit this reader more than you know.

  9. Hi all, I’m so glad this was one of those posts that felt like it arrived at just the right time for so many people. Maybe there’s never a wrong time to hear a message like this! I’m away from my office and my normal life this week, wrapping up work on the first draft of my book manuscript, so I won’t be able to reply to comments individually, as I like to do on the first day of a post. But please know, I’ve read them and value them. Now, go let yourselves be fully ordinary and fully human and fully alive.

  10. Thank you Thank you Thank you for continuing to write! Your work spurs me on as a writer, and I often use your themes to write for an organization that is not Christian. The universal, spiritual themes appeal to them, so I can slip Christ in without any resistance. Thank you. Did I say that already?

  11. Talk about timing. I am just getting home from a long day to a grumpy husband and teenage son (need I say more?). Your words are literally keeping me in the room with them and just humanBEING there. Thank you.

  12. Ugh this was great, thank you. I read a lot of blogs and this blog man it just does it for me. I sincerely take the msgs and think about them during the day and really do apply them at times. So just thank you so much. I remember one blog where you talked about “our mistakes being covered in graces,” and that’s helped me a ton when I need to make TOUGH decisions. I’m not so worried about whether I’m doing the right thing or not, it’s a tremendous relief. And with this post well geez another huge relief because it’s so much easier and better to be more human instead of trying to be extraordinary. The pressure is gone AND we are able to connect more with others!

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