a defense of smallness

There’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time. Maybe most of my life, actually. But certainly actively bugging me since 2014. Back then, I thought the problem was arrogance. It was a good first answer – arrogance is certainly rife enough throughout human history, and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The arrogance of people to insist that they know their god is the only god, that other gods are all silly and evil. That their god had made humans in his image (the male ones, anyhow), and that they have a right to slaughter in their god’s name. Or the arrogance of the ‘scientists’ who reject creationism, yet still believe that humans are the only creature in all of evolution whose talents, perceptions, and feeling have any value at all. Who somehow thing that we are the highest possible watermark for all of evolution, as though a process as old as time would just stop on a dime with our still-half-lizard brains.

There’s the arrogance of people who talk at you rather than with you, who know that they know more about any given subject than you, even if they’ve never lived it or studied it. The arrogance of believing that their particular combination of race/ gender/ nationality/ sexuality/ religion/ politics/ profession is stellar, and all other variations are fundamentally worse, wrong, less-than-human, nasty, or even evil. I’m sure you can all think of some examples.

The opposite of arrogance, of course, is humility. A virtue espoused in many spiritual movements throughout history, and a pretty good one to keep in one’s quiver, if you ask me. But one that seems desperately lacking these days; particularly in my American homeland. Christ on a bike, is it ever in short supply there.

But I’ve realized that arrogance doesn’t fully explain the problem that’s been bugging me. There’s something else behind the arrogance, something deeper; like a river that gives rise to a city, gets paved over, but still goes gurgling along under it all the same. And that problem is bigness.

Small children have a problem with bigness. They’re anxious to grow, to be physically bigger, to claim objects and spaces as theirs, to try to assert some authority on the world, to not feel bossed around and powerless. It’s them trying to work out identity, ego, personal boundaries, etc. Growing up means learning to navigate that with some amount of dignity and sanity. Maturity means getting to a point where you’re able to self-regulate the screaming, sulking, greedy, attention-demanding, narcissism of the toddler. To be able to ask for and pursue what you want in life and have empathy towards others. To learn to share, to sometimes be selfless, to know when to stop, to talk rather than hit – to not be 24/7 impulse machines.

But we live in a culture where we’re not really allowed to settle into maturity. We’re encouraged from every fucking direction to always want to be bigger, and have bigger things:

  • Our parents and teachers push us to dedicate our youth to getting into ‘big name’ universities, so we can take on big debts for degrees that will supposedly get us into big careers, enabling us to get into other debts for big homes and big cars and big tvs and big wardrobes and other big, big-kid toys.
  • Adverts scream out at us from tvs, radios, tablets, phones, magazines, billboards, sandwich boards, the outsides of cars and buses, the insides of trains and buses, airports, underground stations, public toilets, t-shirts, social media, and popups and spam. More, more, more! You are not nearly enough as you are!
  • Programs and publications endlessly pour out content that tell us we need to be thinking about acquiring bigger, better, stronger, fitter, sexier, sleeker lives. That we really ought to have bigger hair, bigger lips, bigger eyes, bigger boobs, bigger muscles, bigger cocks.
  • Celebrity culture, reality TV, fashion, and pop music encourage us to take on bad attitudes and bad style regimes, and walk around acting like we are each the biggest thing since sliced bread. They teach us that you have to command respect and attention by acting like a big jerk to everyone around you.
  • Political pundits, and other cultural ‘leaders’ promote the idea that some people – for example, all women ever – are not entitled to basic human dignity, and encourage their followers to feel ‘big’ by behaving hatefully towards those people.
  • Social media encourages up to make out like our lives are bigger and more exciting than they are, and online dating teaches us that we are disposable warm bodies.
  • A broken economy demands that we play up our resumes to prove that we’re the most amazing ‘rock star’ or ‘ninja’ for the job, even if it’s just to get the actual ‘big cheeses’ their lunch.
  • And the recent phenomena of 24 hour global media expects us to know and care and worry about what is happening in every time zone, and makes us feel somehow responsible for the whole thing.

From left, right, and center, we are encouraged to turn ourselves into cartoons. Big, bulbous, caricatures of ourselves. The desire to feel big (important, powerful, special) may be one aspect of the human condition that we’ll never be without, and certainly in certain doses, it can be a very good thing. Hell, I am a big fan of a genuinely healthy ego; they are a rare and attractive thing to possess. But that isn’t what this bigness business is about – people with truly sound egos don’t go around striving to impress people. This is something else, that’s gotten well out of hand – this is life as an ongoing dick-measuring contest, celebrating rapacious consumption and macho bullshit as the only way to live and assess the lives of others. The pursuit of bigness is squeezing out civility, patience, authenticity, sanity, and love. And you can see it having a terrible impact on every area of society: science, education, politics, courtship, families, health, spirituality, ecosystems, the way we spend our money and resources, and the way we occupy our time and land.

I have certainly not been immune to the desire for bigness in my life. It used to be extremely important to me to be the top of my class, to feel like the smartest kid in the room. I couldn’t deal with losing board games, and was horrified when my younger brother outpaced me at music lessons. One of my teachers told my parents I was such a good, clever student that I ‘could be president’ if I wanted to; so that was where the bar was set, as high as we could imagine (of course, we now know you can be President even if you’re an absolute putz). When I finally left university at the start of a global economic collapse, and discovered that I couldn’t get any of the hundreds of decent jobs I applied for, and all the straws I clutched at fell out of my hands, my whole identity fell apart. I wasn’t going to be big. I wasn’t going to be anything. There were some years I felt that I shouldn’t even exist.

Now, a decade after chucking of my mortar board, I’ve been through dozens of awkward job interviews, a couple lay-offs, several breakups, a few family tragedies, a smattering of minor illnesses and infirmities, and an absolutely embarrassing amount of misspent time, money, and tears. My ego has finally been pummeled enough that I’ve finally been able to learn something I halfway new when I was ten, but spent my whole youth trying to ignore. And that is that most of the times I have been happiest in life had to do with smallness. Either experiences that made me feel small in relation to a great and wondrous world, or that hinged on some tiny gift, act, or creature. When I have felt deeply satisfied to be small or to treasure something small.

A few small examples:

  • My favorite places to be are wandering amongst big trees, big mountains, or big buildings, that remind me how small I am on the skin of this planet.
  • My favorite character, from my earliest memories, and my nickname still when I call home to Ma, is Piglet. And Piglet is a self-proclaimed Very Small Animal.
  • My favorite part of childhood Christmases was never the wrapped presents in boxes, but slowly discovering what tiny, pocketsize treasures my mom had squirrelled away in the bottom of my stocking.
  • Having spent the last twelve years moving back and forth between four countries, practically the only possessions and hobbies I’ve been able to hang on to have to fit into a backpack. My best friend and only pet is a cat, who can easily be toted around in a carrier that passes any airline’s carryon restrictions.
  • When I feel anxious, one of my favorite cures it to lie on my stomach, and have my husband lie on top of me. Like one of those anxiety vests for dogs, or Temple Grandin’s ‘hug machine’, but with an actual human smooshing me. I feel once again that I am just one small thing, that I am finite, and it is a huge relief.  

There are lots of signs in the culture that people are interested in alternatives to their pursuit of bigness. Tiny houses, mindfulness, hygge, minimalism, cabin porn, buy local, and adult coloring books have become massive fads in the last few years. And people who feel lost in life are often advised to embrace their inner child, or go back to doing what they loved when they were little. But I don’t believe I have seen anyone champion all of these things under the uniting umbrella of smallness. The pleasure of fully admitting how microscopic we each are in the scheme of things, each of us is just one tiny pulse amongst unfathomable numbers of other creatures, orbiting one star amongst an unfathomable number of other stars. Of admitting how much we are still just the same small, sensitive souls we were as little children. And of appreciating that most of life’s nicest and most interesting pleasures, treasures, and creatures, are actually quite small. In short, to appreciate how nice it is to just be one sentient, sincere, and friendly being amongst a cosmic boatload of others.

So what I’ve decided is to formally embark on an experiment in embracing smallness, via a series of ‘smallness exercises’ (a la Winnie the Pooh’s ‘stoutness exercises’). And what I’ve also decided is that I will share them here, in case anyone else wants to join in. They will include physical, emotional, and creative activities. There will be kazoos, donkeys, nipples, and blankets (but not all at once, so don’t worry). Most of the smallness exercises shouldn’t require you to buy things, and those that do involve specific materials should rarely cost more than pocket change. I’m already feeling a little more joyous, humble, and formidable from them, so I think there is a chance that they could be useful to others in some small way, too.

A sampling of some of the small items I keep in my backpack, many of which will be integral to the smallness exercises to come. 

A sampling of some of the small items I keep in my backpack, many of which will be integral to the smallness exercises to come.