I first read the book Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse in high school. This short novel describes the spiritual journey of a boy in India. The protagonist, Siddhartha, leaves home in search of enlightenment. His life involves asceticism, wealthy business trade, love and finally a humble occupation as a ferryman. It was years before I understood that this is a story of the Buddha. I was not attracted by the book’s spirituality. I was attracted to Hesse’s description of Siddhartha’s journey.

Although Siddhartha is passionate in his seeking, Hesse’s story is also patient. Siddhartha’s journey begins in boyhood and ends when he is an old man. Each stage of his life takes years and years. In every phase, Siddhartha is fully committed to the life that he is leading. He is unable to anticipate where life will take him next, and yet he embraces the next place he finds himself.

That impresses me. It impresses me because that kind of patience, commitment and embrace are rare. It’s easier to live in extremes. It’s easier to live for the momentous occasions. In Hesse’s Siddhartha, there are few exciting moments or action scenes. Siddhartha’s philosophical and spiritual insights are the jewels of the book. The dramatic tension does not come from a sensational incident where, if turned into a movie with an A-list actor, a blockbuster film could be made.

Rather this book always reminds me of the importance of ordinary time. I find this particularly relevant as one who lives with a bipolar depressive condition. The terminology of “polar” connotes opposite tendencies. This is supposed to be an improvement over previous language of “manic depression” – the term that described what the poles were. The language seems to imply that one is either one thing or the other; that one lives at the extreme ends of mood and behavior.

When I hear that, I imagine a pendulum swinging back and forth. From one mood to the other.

In my experience, there’s a long arc from one pole to another. Most of my life is lived there. In the arc. It’s not particularly exciting or noteworthy. I’m not superwoman, nor am I in the depths of sadness. I’m a person who gets up, gets dressed and goes to work. It’s fairly ordinary.

In a Christian liturgical calendar, the season called “ordinary time” is the longest. The high holy days of Christian calendars focus on the birth and death of Jesus, and then the birth of the church. Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost. Then there are nearly seven months of “ordinary time.” During this time, Christians are encouraged to focus on the life and ministry of Jesus.

It’s a good idea, but it’s difficult to remember when so much energy and excitement is given to birth and death. It leads one to think that what is important about Jesus is who he is – that he was born a certain way for a certain purpose and that he could live after dying. It takes away an emphasis on what Jesus did and taught and how he lived. This is far more fascinating to me. But it’s also longer and more ordinary. So ordinary, in fact, that the canonical gospels leave out descriptions of most of Jesus’ life.

Life spent in ordinary time is important. This is where I learn to put one foot in front of the other. I establish healthy habits that I can draw on when I find myself at an extreme. I make friends. I love. I practice hope and trust. Sometimes I sit still. This is what I saw in Siddhartha, and what I experience in my ordinary moments.

It’s taken me time to appreciate these places. I was taught to be ambitious and driven, to have goals, and to celebrate their attainment – and then to be about the business to setting new goals. But one cannot live there all the time. Ordinary time says that it’s okay to be ordinary. It’s okay to live, learn, eat, love and pray. Those are ends in themselves.

After the long and ordinary life of searching for enlightenment, Hesse describes one of Siddhartha’s dramatic insights in this way:

“When someone is seeking … it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything…because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal.”

What’s nice about ordinary time is that one can stop living at the limits, and can even stop focusing on the goal. One can savor the process. There is joy just in the journey.

The Christian singer, Michael Card expresses this well in his short song “Joy in the Journey”:

There is a joy in the journey

There’s a light we can love on the way

There is a wonder and wildness to life

And freedom for those who obey

Both Card and Hesse suggest that when we live fully where we are, embrace the ordinary and find joy in the journey, we will find what we’ve been looking for. And we will be free. And it is holy.

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