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The Office: Finding the Sacred in the Everyday

05/17/2013 07:24 am ET | Updated Jul 17, 2013
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There's a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn't that kind of the point? --Pam Beasley Halpert

It's finally over. That's what she said. Tonight's finale marked the most anticipated end to a comedy series since Seinfeld's goodbye in 1998 and the Friends' finale in 2004 (30 Rock Fans: it was a phenomenal show, but it didn't leave us anticipating the resolution like the Office, or Seinfeld, or Friends, or the Sopranos . . . sorry. It just wasn't that show). On the surface, it might be tempting to say that Seinfeld ruled the 90s and the Office ruled the post-Friends 2000s because both were shows about nothing. Yet, despite the mundane subject matter of the Office--what's more mundane than the regional office of a small paper company in Scranton Pennsylvania?--it would be inaccurate to call it a show about nothing.

At its best (Seasons 2-4), The Office encapsulated the awkward, frustrating, and often cringe-worthy moments of the workplace in a manner that was both profoundly funny and often just profound. True fans might say that the show ended when Michael Scott moved to Colorado, leaving the Office in the hands of a series of temporary regional managers, young Jims and Dwights, and increasingly stretched plot lines. However, despite the forgettable episodes from the past few seasons, it's important that the show that started the genre of the mockumentary ended with the aftermath of the nine-year-in-the-making documentary, because it was here we got to see the profound lesson that The Office has to teach us about the relationship between the sacred and the everyday.

When the Seinfeld foursome sat in the courtroom and saw themselves through the eyes of the cast of characters they had rudely dismissed over the years, it became apparent that there was no center at the heart of their everyday lives. They had revealed the absurdity of our everyday interactions, but provided no revelation as to the significance of any of them. The show masterfully turned the mundane completely into the profane. The Office did something different. It showed us that the mundane has the power to be--often simultaneously and often powerfully--sacred and profane. The Office reminds us that our everyday interactions are not just what we have to get through in order to get to our real life; that we don't just survive the hours from 8:30 to 5 in order to get to our yoga class, basketball league, or our kid's dance recital. In brief, the show reminds us that if we aren't careful, the moments that make up life will pass by while we are wishing we were somewhere else or anticipating what it will be like when we really start living.

I wish was there a way to know you are in the good-ol days before you've left them.--Andy Bernard

It's fitting that the same week The Office finale aired a video was released that captures an influential commencement speech by David Foster Wallace from 2005. The speech is entitled "This is Water" and was an inspiration to millions even before the video was released (if you haven't read or listened to it, it is more than worth the 10 minutes: http://youmeandcharlie.com/watch/this-is-water-short-film/ ) The opening vignette goes like this:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys, how's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?'

Foster Wallace then says: "The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about." I think that encapsulates exactly what the Office has to say about the sacrality of everyday life. In Jim Halpert's last interview with the documentary crew he said that the documentary had captured his life--his growing up, his falling in love, getting his heart broken, becoming a husband, becoming a father, and becoming a friend to a dozen or so co-workers. But, for me the important part is what he called the capturing of his mundane existence over the nine years: "an amazing gift." Yet, we didn't see his kids' first steps or how he and Pam interacted at home or their family vacations--aren't those the really important moments? Why is the capturing of his mundane work life such an amazing gift? It's an amazing gift because it is the gift of water. It's the gift of showing someone who often thought that he was wasting his breaths in a dead-end job that the most important realities don't happen suddenly or accidentally. The most profound moments of life are founded upon the moment-by-moment decisions we make on random Tuesday mornings in a boring training meeting or a tired Wednesday afternoon in the break room (or casino nights in the warehouse, job interviews at corporate, or long lunches to propose at a rest stop). They have to do, as Foster Wallace says, with how we decide to see the mundane realities of the everyday:

But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Over the last nine years The Office grabbed us because it made us reconsider whether or not we were missing things--important things--in the moments that seem the least important. In this sense, The Office is the anti-thesis to the idea that the sacred just isn't manifest anymore--that the industrialized, digitized, and systematized cubicles of the modern workplace are void of sacrality. The show is the counter-example to the idea that in order for our lives to have some sort of meaning that it would have to happen outside the 40 or 50 hours that we have to be at the office. Even though everyday life often seems mundane, the Office never limited itself to the profane.

When Jim received the amazing gift of the last 9 years of his life, he got a deep gulp of the water he'd been swimming in. He realized that the problem is not that the sacred is no longer manifest amidst the small frustrations, endless stress, and seemingly meaningless moments of going to work each day. The problem is that we often aren't looking for it. The problem is that it might take 9 years of video to convince you that the incalculable often goes hand in hand with the unexpected, and that both often go hand in hand with the ordinary. Or, as in Pam's case, it might take you 5 years to realize that what's right in front of you is thing you've been looking for all along.

Overall, the lesson that I'll take from the Office is that sometimes it takes a camera crew following you around for a decade to make you realize that the sacred is something you have to want to see, and if you aren't looking for it--if you eliminate the possibility that this is your life and that it is sacred--then it will never show itself. In the end, Jim summed up his time at Dundler Mifflin as: "This stupid, wonderful, boring, amazing job." By doing so, he captured what I think David Foster Wallace would call the task of being human--the task of looking for the wonderful amidst the stupid and the amazing amidst the banal.

Everyday when I came to work all I wanted to do was leave. So why is it so hard to leave now? --Daryl Philbin