Pip lived a common life. After his parent’s early death, circumstance tossed him into his adult sister’s possession. Pip cannot be said to have been in Mrs. Joe Gargery’s care, for she knew no warmth. Even their quaint home, due to quainter pockets, knew little of a fireplace.
No money. No parents. No worthy social connections. No education. No future beyond apprenticeship to his uncle Joe, the town blacksmith. These wants created a very common life indeed, and Pip wanted the “uncommon” life — the gentleman’s life.
Through the clouds of poverty, money dawns. An unknown benefactor has left Pip a fortune. With it, so-called friends emerge from the shadows. The townspeople declare their love for him. They dizzy his hand with how often they shake it. They tremble at their fortune: That they should tailor a gentleman’s clothes! That they should serve a gentleman’s supper! That they shoulddrive a gentleman’s coach!
Pip’s head dizzies, too. Haughty pride quakes his every thought. No longer a self-forgetful boy, he buries humility in the rubble. The forge, once an escape from his sister’s rage, is a gentleman’s prison. The supper, once a time for silent camaraderie with Joe amidst her barrage, detains him from the company a gentleman keeps. Biddy, once the only young person whom he loved learning alongside, is too plain, too simple, too uneducated for a gentleman.
In time, Pip’s wallet fattens as he receives further installments from his benefactor. He heads for London, imagining that this — this! — is the land in which he will realize all his Great Expectations (Dickens). Finally — finally! — he has fled all he obsessively loathed and all he unthinkingly loved.
From Riches to Rags
As is too often the case, his expectations mutate into their dreaded opposite. Disappointment piles as high as London’s grime, as deep as the ache within his chest. He misses Joe and Biddy. It doesn’t help that his fortune quit him as quickly as it knocked, for Pip’s debts daily accrued. A gentleman’s tastes are not cheap.
Neither were the things he left behind. As Pip later reflects, “There was a long hard time when I kept far from me, the remembrance of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth.” In abandoning his common life, Pip thought he sought a worthy one. Quite the opposite.
By the tale’s close, Pip rightly appraises the commonness he once loathed. He esteems his uneducated, faithful friends. His business labors not for financial gain, but for a “good name.” His own character changes: “Leaving arrogance and untruthfulness further and further behind,” he does not desire to be anyone besides Pip. Not even a gentleman.
For a common life turned out to be the very thing he sought. Commonness was, in fact, what he wanted: the uncommon, the extraordinary, the remarkable. This is not to say that commonness is something that it is not. Commonness, indeed, is common. But commonness turned out to be uncommon, extraordinary, remarkable, because it is precisely not these things — and it does not try to be. That’s its rich secret.
I spent nearly all high school and college in fear of being and remaining common. My great expectations were not unlike Pip’s: I wanted to become uncommonly educated in English, particularly its linguistic predecessors. You know, the dead ones. I wanted to live in one of those uncommon places that everyone knows and envies. London, perhaps. I wanted to marry, of course, but not before I worked an uncommon job that enamors few and puzzles everyone else.
These are not bad desires in and of themselves, but the motive easily rots. If we wish to be this, to do that, precisely because we want to be be seen as this or that, then we are not uncommon at all. We are being extraordinarily, remarkably common humans: We are being self-obsessed sinners.
There is a better way. In fact, there is only one way to “make something [uncommon]” of ourselves. That way is to make nothing of ourselves and everything of Christ.
Whom They Recognized
Consider Peter and John. After healing “a man lame from birth” in Jesus’s name (Acts 3:2), they proclaim his life, death, and resurrection to the people gathered. The temple priests and Sadducees arrest them. Soon, Peter and John stand before a council of seemingly uncommon men: “Rulers and elders and scribes . . . with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family” (Acts 4:5–6). They ask, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7).
At this, Peter becomes the most truly uncommon man present. For he depends not on himself to speak and speaks not of himself when he does. “Filled with the Holy Spirit,” Peter responds (Acts 4:8). “Rulers of the people and elders,” he says, “let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth . . . by him this man is standing before you well” (Acts 4:8, 10).
As Peter speaks, a tremor runs through the council. For “when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished” (Acts 4:13). It was Peter and John’s commonness that dropped mouths and puzzled brows.
Then the council understood. And they despised the one explanation for this phenomenon: “They recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Mere fishermen could only speak as Peter did through the past influence and present power of Another. Indeed, wholly Other was he — the God-man called Jesus Christ.
Common, and Content
History has never known a more uncommon “man” as Jesus. And you and I cannot be anything but common, self-obsessed sinners without likewise knowing, and loving, and proclaiming, him.
If God so wills, you may learn less than you had hoped. You may spend your life in the suburbs of a town that you don’t really name when people ask. You may marry someone you met in high school. You may not. You may work a job that presses you check the clock every hour (or less). You very well may be common.
How glorious, how uncommon, your life might become! If, in its plainness, you are content to boast of nothing “except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to [you], and [you] to the world” (Galatians 6:14). For the uncommon growth of virtues and display of the glory of God — meaningful accomplishments — occur most commonly and clearly when we happily accept worldly “commonness.”
So Father, make us common, for your sake and ours.