Some imagine the moral life to be a series of dramatic moments: for example, a conversion to a religion or to some secular cause. Many think of freedom as a romantic struggle for self-expression and a perpetual rebellion against the status quo.
That’s looking at life from the wrong end of the telescope.
We are who we are moment by moment. Dramatic crises may suddenly materialize, but our characters, which determine our part in the drama, are framed and shaped by the habits that manage everyday existence — undramatic decisions touching family, friends, work, money, and the opposite sex. And if “self-expression” has any meaning beyond plain selfishness, it must be the orchestration of personal habits with the habits of others, to expresss a marriage, a family, a community.
The greatest moral dramas are the smallest. The struggle for freedom and the good life plays out in the miniature arena of the mundane.
Consider the activities of a household. Relentlessly, junk accumulates, and must be thrown into the thrash. Thrash bags fill and must be placed in the bins outside. Garbage in one bin, plastic in another. Twice a week, the trash bin must be moved to the street, so the collectors can empty it.
Bills come in the mail. Someone must pay them before the due date. That alters the bank balance, which every so often must be reconciled.
There’s school. There’s homework. Clarinet lessons. Piano lessons. There’s work and working trips to take. Food to buy, put away, cook, eat. Dishes to wash.
In my house, we call them chores. They aren’t supposed to be fun. My kids grumble when asked to participate — and so did I, at their age. In my maturity, though, I have come to a new appreciation of chores. When I take out the thrash bin, twice a week, I feel like a mighty warrior holding chaos at bay. When I reconcile the checking account and the numbers add up just right, I imagine the harmony in my home has been expressed mathematically.
When I indulge some private activity — when I express myself — and the thrash accumulates or the bills go unpaid, a sense of loneliness accosts me, and indulgence soon turns to regret.
If every person in my family chose self-expression over taking out the thrash, none of us could express much. We would all be homeless and starved and buried in filth. The miracle of family is that five of us share a single slice of time and space. One need not be a Calvinist or a neat freak (and God knows, none of us are) to understand that the daily chores express the moral quality of this shared experience.
Every minute of the mundane presents a choice between order and disorder, adulthood and childishness, freedom and impulse. Those who embrace the drama of telescopic philanthropy misunderstand the nature of both freedom and morality, and in a sense fail in both. Far happier, and closer to the good life, are those who rejoice in the transcendence of everyday decisions.