Is it a vice to be common? Certainly many aspects of our contemporary living recoil against being ordinary. The advent of Facebook lends itself to a perpetual posturing of personality. Twitter lends itself to the self-centered notion that people will actually read what I write (as does the irony of this blog post). Certainly, we're inundated with our fair share of mainstream media articles on the self-defined uniqueness of the millenial generation. I'm even told by a counseling friend of mine that the newest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is needing to change its definition of narcissism to be more extreme, because the old definition of narcissism is too common to have explanatory value.
It's an edict of our age that we all like being special. When filling out a resume, when arguing with our boss in our heads, when applying for any kind of loan, when filling out scholarship applications, we all want to be special, and probably think we are more special than we actually are. Perhaps we should find solace in being common?
To that point, two of my heroes certainly did champion the "common man," the man of common sense with an ordinary life and an ordinary job. One is Gilbert Keith Chesterton and the other is Charles Dickens. Chesterton in his biography of Dickens extols the virtues of Dickens, precisely for being common:
Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community. For this kinship was deep and spiritual. Dickens was not like our ordinary demagogues and journalists. Dickens did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted... Hence there was this vital point in his popularism, that there was no condescension in it.
Dickens wanted what the people wanted. The virtue in this is that his popularity was incredibly widespread, and yet he still discussed meaningful matters. By any standard, Dickens produced works of art. The common man still voraciously read 800 pages of Bleak House and David Copperfield because Dickens was so good. Does anybody read 800-page books anymore?
And that's where the rub is, isn't it? Part of being common now is different from what was common then. The common man now watches an excessive amount of television and hardly reads at all. The common man now is in financial debt. The common man now spends a lot of time on Facebook trying not to be common. This raises an important question: is there still wisdom in being common, in being ordinary?
There certainly is, but it means we need a definition of the idea of the "common." It's virtuous to be common in a difficult, seemingly meaningless job. It's virtuous to be common in one's awareness of the news: not too much and not too little. It's virtuous to have a common love of one's family and one's actual neighbors. It's virtuous to do ordinary, common things in a simple, faithful way. Chesterton and Dickens have much to admire about people such as this, as do I.
To talk about such ordinary, common lifestyles is to note, in fact, how rare such common action is. The tricky admission, in a narcissistic age such as ours, is that we can only strive for such virtuous commonality with limited effect. That is, unless we had an ordinary carpenter for a savior.