Cultivating a Better Normal
Formative goods and practices help cultivate our own sense of embodied living and draw us closer to participating in the good of God’s creation and the community around us.
Do you ever go on a hike or bake bread just so that you can post it on Instagram? Do you ever get food at a farmers’ market out of a motivation to tell others that you did so? Chances are, we’ve either done this or had it cross our mind one way or the other. We yearn for an affirmation of doing an embodied practice that stands outside of the mundane, quotidian tasks of life. We may practice calligraphy here and there, or visit an orchard once a year, but part of the draw is that such a practice or outing possesses a certain exotic rarity.
Hiking, baking bread, practicing calligraphy, visiting an orchard (to name a few examples) are formative goods—not because of their rarity and perhaps exotic quality—but because they are embodied practices that help us foster community, hone a skill, grow in knowledge of the natural world, develop a healthy self-reliance, and deepen our faith in our Creator. We cut ourselves short by reducing the effect of formative goods and embodied practices to instances that are merely fit for Instagram posts or fleeting one-off outings. If these sorts of practices are formative, then shouldn’t we strive to make them normal? Ought they be routine and not reserved as rare exoticisms?
Normal & Normative
What is normal is what is expected. It no longer has that sparkling, voguish charm that we can share on social media for our friend’s enthusiastic response. “It was cool the first time I practiced painting, but it started to lose its novelty and felt normal. It didn’t feel like I was doing something different anymore.”
There’s a connection between what is normal (commonly practiced and widely accepted) with what is viewed as normative (a standard that testifies to what is moral or natural). Therefore, what is normal is projected to be a particular standard of what is right and proper. The tasks that are included in one’s routine are the things that the person believes they should be doing. In other words, that which is practiced is also what the person doing implicitly deems as something good to do. Whether we spend our time reading on a Saturday afternoon or watching YouTube videos—either way—we are doing what we think we should be doing with our time.
The tasks that are part of our daily routine define who we are much more than we think. What we view as normal ultimately mirrors how we think of what is normative. When was the last time you planted a garden, baked bread, or visited an orchard? Did you see these sorts of things as an essential, formative part of your life? Chances are, regardless of how much fruit the garden produced or how the bread turned out, you felt pretty good about the fact that you planted and tended the garden, and took the time to bake your own bread. The good feeling that comes with doing these sorts of hands-on practices lies with the fact that they are formative. They help cultivate our own sense of embodied living and draw us closer to participating in the good of God’s creation and the community around us. The more we see the connection between normality and what is normative, the more serious our priorities become in our daily routines.
Habits & Routines
Fostering habits and working out new patterns of living by reordering our priorities can go a long way in realizing a better normal—a state in which formative, embodied practices are recognized for their role in cultivating us and our communities and take their place as routine, not rare. Many of us thrive when we live according to a routine. Routine carries with it a sense of predictability that offers security. Routine is also closely linked with habit. Both can be broken, but when they are broken, instability surfaces.
Often, we trick ourselves into not adopting a helpful practice in our lives by saying “We’ll do it next time,” or, “I’d like to do that some time, but I just don’t have the time right now.” Every time we say ‘no’ to going on a hike, hosting friends and neighbors for dinner, or painting on a Sunday afternoon, we dismiss the challenge of normalizing formative goods. I am complicit in this. I’ve told myself more than once, “It would be nice to get back into calligraphy, but I don’t have time.” We get so caught up in our daily routines that we fail to look beyond them for ways to make them better.
The more we do something—whatever it is—the more likely we are to keep doing it. Whatever that is, it assumes its place in our schedule. Take a Sunday church service. If it is a normal, routine thing you do, that does not take away from its importance but rather lends itself towards a deeper importance, not just to you personally, but to everyone else that is coming there on a regular basis. If going to church is normal, you don’t wonder if you should trade more time to do homework or catch-up on some other housework on Sunday morning because there is already something going on then.
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There is a difference between taste and habit. A taste may whet our appetite, but it is fleeting. It does not last unless we taste again. Baking bread—once—is a taste. Going on a hike—once a year—is a taste. If one doesn’t make it a habit, or part of their regular order of life, the taste fades. Habits, on the other hand, remain. A habit is a manner of conducting oneself that one does not think about. One just does it. In a way, there is a sense where a habit is part of the person (think Aristotle)—it informs who they are and how they behave.
In this way, a habit is normal to the person that has it. There’s a better normal to be pursued if we consider intentionality. How tight is our weekend schedule, really? How busy are our lives, really? The truth is, most of the time, it is a matter of our priorities—not our busyness—that bars us from pursuing formative goods that are fitting to one’s particular time and place. There’s a sense in which our daily routine becomes less busy if we commit to a better routine with more formative priorities.
A Better Normal
The formative goods that reflect our embodied lives and creaturely limits don’t always rely on others’ joining us. Although there are some, like hosting dinners and dancing, that do. Daring to regularly bake our own bread every Saturday; to chop our own wood for our wood stove or bonfires; to cultivate a friendship with a farmer from the market; or to draw a scene in our sketchbook while sitting in the park—these examples don’t require convincing your entire friend group to commit. But indeed, they may be convinced to join you if they see how it has helped form you in a way that has brought about a greater wholeness of self, whether engaging in nature and creating habits of mind and body, or cultivating friendship and community with others that underwrite virtues of acknowledged dependence (like hospitality and caretaking) and reaffirm the gift and beauty of our natural, creaturely limits (physical work and engagement with the natural landscape).
Everything that is normal—either in our individual lives or communities—is not unchanging and inevitable. Striving towards a better normal may require long-range change in our lives. And even though long-range change is slow, and for practical purposes, impossible, the “decision to change oneself is unpremeditated and instantaneous, a systole of the heart.”1
Steven Carter is a history instructor, aspiring medievalist, and assistant manager at his family’s third-generation farm in Minnesota.
John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture.