the healing power of the ordinary

A traumatic experience is by very definition extraordinary—it is defined as an experience or event that overwhelms your capacities to depend upon or protect yourself—something that you experience as totally out of the ordinary. But repeated trauma is different. With repeated trauma, long term trauma, intergenerational trauma—the extraordinary becomes utterly and completely routine—trauma becomes what is expected.  When you are healing from trauma there can be such a wish for something extraordinary to happen—some big shift the way things happen in the movies. In the movies, people change their whole lives in an hour and half. You want to believe in the one conversation that will change things, the one cathartic meltdown. The scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams’s character tells Will “It’s not your fault.” and Will is healed.

But I have found that some of the best healing is not the extraordinary—it is the utterly and completely ordinary. It is the daily dog walk, it is the morning coffee, it is the routine of food shopping or doing laundry. It is the smile that the cashier at the store gives you, and the one you give the woman walking in the door of your office. For many of my clients the daily-ness of caring for grandchildren was immensely healing. For others it is ordinariness of planning for life’s typical events—birthdays, Halloween, staff parties. The chance to live out the normal events of their week—and to know that they were part of the fray.

When I am having a bad day one of my favorite people to talk to is my brother-in-law. He loves sports, and he loves to sail. I could listen to any of these conversations for hours—and it’s not because I share his interests—I don’t love hockey and I don’t know much about sailing—but I love listening to him talk about them because his joy is simply contagious. They are easy, flowing conversations that aren’t trying to get anywhere in particular. They are about the ordinary—and they allow for something extraordinary. My other favorite healing conversations are listening to he and my sister-in-law talk about their kids—they love their kids and listening to people talk about their kids can be one of the most healing conversations of all, because kids, regardless of age, are the gurus of ordinary. This is, of course, why children drive most parents nuts—the relentless ordinary that goes with them. When people like my in-laws or my best friend tell stories about their kids they are mostly tales of a peaceful ordinary.  The ordinary frustrations, the ordinary school bake sales, the ordinary struggles of growing up and moving. There is nothing quite as soothing as the peaceful ordinary. A peaceful ordinary is the necessary and healing antidote to the violent ordinary. So never underestimate your ordinary days, or your ordinary support of others. It is what helps the healing happen.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014