The Ordinary World

Julia Steinberger
6 min readMar 17, 2024


How do we write during a genocide? Any words and actions that fall short of stopping the bombs, feeding the children and rebuilding a safe and free world for them are inadequate. But I have some words, inspired by the doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and paramedics, the health workers of Gaza.

Witnessing the health workers of Gaza

Working in unbearable and unsafe conditions, without respite, without pay, without seeing their families, day after day, night after night, patching up the wounded. Going through the agony of amputating torn limbs without anaesthesia, over and over again, knowing that the pain can itself kill their patients. Seeing children and parents succumb to treatable injuries due to lack of supplies. Seeing the untreatable trauma of orphans and parents of murdered children, over and over and over again. Successfully treating some lucky few, only to see them brought back in, hours or weeks later, dying of injury or disease. Seeing their colleagues break down as their own families are brought in as corpses, wondering when it will be their own turn to lose everything. Facing bombs, gunfire and famine, knowing that if the IDF makes it to their hospitals, they will be singled out for capture and torture in Israeli jails.

Dr Muhammad Abu Salmiya, Director of Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza, detained by Israel since November, widely believed to be facing horrific torture in Israeli detention.

Yet they keep working, somehow. How do we understand this?

Here I have a confession to make. I could never be a doctor. First of all, I tend to faint at the sight of blood, not very useful. But also, doctors and health workers have to deal too closely with the messy realities of the human condition: our imperfect bodies, riddled with strange diseases and deformities, ageing, bulging, shrinking. I am uncomfortable with my own body, and cannot fathom day after day being confronted with the awkward failing bodies of others. What do health workers see in this work that is so worthy? This is not something that I understand instinctively.

Witnessing the doctors of Gaza, I have been wondering what keeps them and other health workers going. What do they understand that I don’t? And I have come to think it has to do with the worthiness of ordinary life.

Everyday (im)perfection

Doctors and health workers don’t expect our bodies (or minds) to be perfect. They don’t expect their own work to bring us into a perfect condition. But they want, more than anything, for our imperfect selves to be able to keep going, keep living day-to-day in our lives, with our loved ones, doing our work, going about our business. Doctors know, more than anyone else, that this is a losing battle: we all die, we all succumb eventually to something. But doctors and health workers see the everyday work of picking us back up, patching us back together, sending us back into our everyday lives, as the most important task there can ever be.

Here I have another confession to make. Growing up, I never saw the everyday as particularly worthwhile. I had vague but extremely persistent dreams of glory, distinction, perfection, exception. I never lived in the present, but in some vague dreams of glory. I never wanted to enjoy the present, preferring to put it off to some future time, when I would have done something spectacular enough, figured out some heroic secret formula to life, the universe and everything, to finally make it worthwhile to celebrate my time on the planet.

It sounds stupid and childish to write down, and indeed it comes from my childhood. But I don’t think it’s so very rare. I grew up as the child of scientists who had made considerable contributions to uncovering the secrets of the physical reality that surrounds us. I was surrounded by books of epic heroic adventures, the only ones I could truly identify with. As I grew up, I started looking for the big secrets I could unlock, hoping that somehow my brains could resolve the blueprints for new political and economic forms, squaring the circle of living well within planetary limits. And I have done some of that, so part of my childish dreaming has paid off. But I always believed that my work required the sacrifice of being dissatisfied with the imperfect present, with my imperfection. Like economists promising us that future growth will solve present destruction, like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Sam Altman dreaming of space and artificial intelligence at the expense of our planet and humanity, surely any dreams of glory require the sacrifice the ordinary world. Or — do they?

The first chink in this world-view came from being a parent. If you strive for perfection, you will never enjoy your time with your child. I tried to do everything right, and enjoyed very little of it, I have to be honest. One big lesson came a day when I was travelling with my small son, but too sick to embark on a planned full day of sightseeing. We had to stay at a friend’s house, and somehow spend the time together. That day of just doing whatever we wanted together, with no schedule, was the best day I had ever spent with him. I am still learning from it.

Another chink came from having cancer. Being so sick, facing potential death, one has to learn to enjoy the present: seeing leaves on a bumpy sidewalk, having a fresh breeze on one’s face, someone smiling on the way to the chemotherapy ward. I still try to learn from this lesson. There are other ones, about failing to appreciate time with family and friends, feeling like I am not enough, but those are bitter. The main point here is that living life based on dreams of remote future glory, without seeing the present as worthy, is inhuman, destructive, wrong. And health workers knew this all along.

For these few and simple things

Real work, real life, real humanity, real glory lies not in a remote dream of perfection, but in the everyday effort to help others live in the everyday. That’s it. There is no other secret.

Palestinians, as spoken word poet and activist Rafeef Zadiah reminds us, “teach life.” The doctors and health workers of Gaza, working to bandage the human bodies and hearts torn apart by the bombs paid for with our taxes pay, teach life. They teach us that the ordinary world, of people simply being able to exist and spend time with their loved ones, is the most important, most glorious ideal we could ever work towards.

As the communist Greek Tasos Leivaditis poet wrote,

Yes, my beloved,
it is for these few and simple things that we fight
so that we might have a door, a star, a bench
a joyful journey in the morning
a peaceful dream at night.
So that we have a love they can’t defile
a song that we can sing.

It’s a harsh lesson to learn that a lifetime spent in idle dreams of remote glory missed the most important aspects of life, and the most important work we can do for each other. I am only sharing these words in case some of them echo with you, and can bring you back into the ordinary world as well. Because, make no mistake, Tasos Leivaditis is correct. This ordinary world, of everyday imperfection and activities, is a fight. Everywhere, in every way, “these few and simple things” arebeing torn away from our fellow humans, by warfare, exploitation, inequality and planetary breakdown. Ordinary does not mean free from attack.

So learning to see our highest work in the vital task of ordinary lives, ordinary belonging to societies and environments, implies a lifelong commitment to the biggest struggle there is. To end with a slightly less highbrow quote, which I believe goes for all of us this century,

And as I try to make my way
To the ordinary world
I will learn to survive. — Duran Duran

Please support and fund the doctors of Gaza

The following organisations are helping on the ground with healthcare. Please support them.



Julia Steinberger

Immigrant, Swiss-American-UK ecological economist at the University of Lausanne. Research focus on living well within planetary limits. Opinions my own.