on playing small

Photo Credit: Pexels
Photo Credit: Pexels

What we are is a set of walking contradictions. Our inner lives are not partitioned like day and night, with pure light on one side of us and total darkness on the other. Mostly, our souls are shadowed places; we live at the border where dark sides block our light and throw a shadow over our interior places…We cannot always tell where our light ends and our shadow begins or where our shadow ends and our darkness begins. –From Lewis Smedes’ Shame and Grace

We always want more–even if we don’t want it, even if we never needed it. When we are children our eyes rove over the things we see–the pink light that filters in through trees (dusk), machines that race down streets (cars), furry things that lick their paws (cats, dogs–this could get complicated). Everything’s a puzzle, mostly; images and words play Lego for the whole of our lives. We are forever in reconstruction, and we lean on others for definition, interpretation, and perspective. Over time we consider everything in the diminutive as an unfinished state, not yet realized and far from its potential. That cute wobbly puppy grows into a dog that can run. That infant who once smelled of clean cotton sheets grows into someone who builds houses, flies planes, cures diseases. Our memory of the miniature plays out in sepia, it’s hazy and often romanticized–we only fixate on what we become, leaving our previous states aside.

I’ve been thinking about children lately. Not having them, but observing them. I’ve also been thinking about death (although this article would try to convince me that thinking of these things will help alleviate my fear of them. Nice try), and I’m making connections between the two. In death, we return from that which we’ve come–our mode of transportation varies depending upon what you believe–but I wonder if the place to which we’ll go vaguely resembles the one from which we’ve come, and the space we’ve been occupying between the two, our holding pen, has been spent trying to make sense of our journey from one to the other.

Or maybe that’s my life.

We cry coming out and we weep slouching our way home. Because isn’t that what death is, really? Our final stop, a story, a home that cannot be torched or torn down? Our tears come from fear of the unknown, of what’s to come. I assume babies scream-cry because they consider everything an assault. What are these shapes, colors, and lights? Who are you? What is this, what am I, and so on. Over time, the answers are revealed in degrees, and for a brief while we are comforted by these certainties. Life becomes a slow conquering of sorts, a means to ferret out truth from the unknown, and our death is a surrender. We lay down our armaments because we’ve no idea which tools we’ll need for the next battle. In our twilight years I suppose we weep because we’ve left a life where most riddles have been resolved, loves have been felt, truths have been revealed–to what? To nothing? To a fugue state that morphs into the eternal black? To azure skies and golden gates or fiery bowels–as some books would have it? Or do feel sorrow because we spent our lives trying to know when there is so much we’ll never know. Have we wasted time in this single, temporary waking life?

I greatly fear my hidden parts–From Augustine’s Confessions

It occurs to me that these moments, life and death, are monumental, yet we’re small when confronting them. We’re small in the beginning (literally), and in the end we become small in ways that are more complicated. In both states we don’t consider the notion of wanting more; we can’t even comprehend acquisition, and isn’t it funny that we face our two greatest moments being valiant and great in our smallness, in our need for nothing?

Lately I’ve been feeling, for lack of a better term, colonized. Colonized in terms of defining a home, colonized in reference to how I live my life. We all have a reference point. I came from a home that had nothing and spent the great deal of my 20s and early 30s in the business of hyper-accumulation in hopes that it would satiate a need that could never be truly filled by the things bought in tender. I hailed from a generation that believed in the beauty of size. We measured our self worth in width, height, and weight, and our homes made us feel like dwarves, our Italian leather handbags threatened to swallow us whole. We became bound to this title, to those letters after our name, as if ascension equated to human greatness.

Me & My Pop at My Book Party

I think about my dad. For a time I couldn’t comprehend why he didn’t want more from life–why he didn’t demand the world and everything in it just I had. His home and closets are spare — he has only what he needs. He cleaves to his rituals: coffee in the morning, coffee as a means to connect, and long drives to clear his head. He holds few photographs. Luckily, I’m in one of them. He doesn’t speak about the past often, but what he remembers are the moments I sometimes struggle to recall: they’re small, but we explode into laughter when he recounts them. The day he drove down a one-way street. The day we made a point to eat one meal from every fast food joint in a five-mile radius (I don’t recommend this). He has the ability to say one string of words and we’re immediately transported back and I can feel everything. He has a way of making the world simple, clean and neat–even when he’s engulfed in sadness, loss, heartbreak.

I admire him this, his quiet nobility. I admire a man who’s lived a great, small life–who loves every minute of it. You feel everything so hard, he once joked.

Recently I ask, are you afraid of death? To which he responds swiftly, fearless, no. I ask him how that’s possible. I ask all the questions. And he shrugs and says that it’s silly to waste your life thinking about something you’ll never understand or could explain. He has an acceptance, a calm reserve that at this moment I find unimaginable, although I hope that will change as time passes.

Yet when I look at him, when I think of children, I’m reminded of the beauty in playing small. Of not needing to puff up your chest, resume, byline or biography. Life is still worth loving even if I don’t win prizes, or reach financial, professional heights. Yesterday I finished reading David Brooks’ magnificent book, The Road to Character, and the final chapter closed on the dangers of a society solely focused on meritocracy, on the accumulation of desires and the constant cult of me. He writes,

The meritocratic system wants you to be big about yourself–to puff yourself, to be completely sure of yourself, to believe that you deserve a lot and to get what you think you deserve (so long as it’s good). The meritocracy wants you to assert and advertise yourself. It wants you to display and exaggerate your achievements. The achievement machine rewards you if you can demonstrate superiority–if with a thousand gestures, conversational types, and styles of dress you can demonstrate that you are a bit smarter, hipper, more accomplished, sophisticated, famous, plugged-in, and fashion-forward that the people around you. It encourages narrowing. It encourages you to become a shrewd animal.

By coveting the largess of life, we end up being silly and small. But what if we revered the reverse? What if we came from a place of curiosity, humility, self-acceptance, honesty. What if we formed our character based on how we loved, what we built as an extension of that love versus what we boast, promote and share. I think about this tension a lot, especially when I read that I have to make a ruckus in order to break ranks. What if I ceased wanting all the things (I’m close, not completely there, to be honest)? What if I burned the measuring tape and scales, and stopped equating large and more with joy and greatness? Fewer, better. Quality reigns over quantity. I’ve done this in nearly all aspects of my life, but not my life in its entirety. But then I wonder if that’s even possible. I’m not sure that it is, so perhaps that’s part of the journey, too.

What if I spent my life playing small? Because I’ll need that nobility, that calm and reserve, for the next home, the final place to which I’ll be traveling.

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Currently listening to this.
Currently reading this, because, you know, smart, dead people.