Most of us live small lives in the scale of things. Most writers reach a relatively small circle of readers. And, in a world where there is so much suffering, injustice and ecological damage, as well as the current uncertainties of COVID-19, life can feel overwhelming and our writing can feel like it’s not enough. As though nothing we can ever do or be, say or write is enough.
The power of small
Photo by CHIRAG K on Unsplash
And yet, we know that story is powerful. We know that disconnection and fragmentation is an illusion and a lie. All lives matter. All stories matter. Small lives don’t have to be imprisoned by small thinking. In the scale of the universe, all human life is small, no matter how much celebrity and power anyone has or seems to have. Every person, every tree, every creature is small, minuscule, yet important.
In the film, You Got Mail, one of the many film versions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the character Kathleen Kelly, played by Meg Ryan makes the point that:
I lead a small life — well, valuable, but small — and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave?
It’s not that our lives are small that is the problem. It’s how we lead them. Small is still valuable. Every small life, every small story, counts.
The poet Jane Hirshfield puts this powerfully in ‘The Weighing’:
The heart’s reasons seen clearly, even the hardest will carry its whip-marks and sadness and must be forgiven.
As the drought-starved land forgives the drought-starved lion who finally takes her, enters willingly then the life she cannot refuse, and is lion, is fed, and does not remember the other.
So few grains of happiness measured against all the dark and still the scales balance.
The world asks of us only the strength we have and we give it. Then it asks more, and we give it.
Balancing the darkness
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Small lives lived well are those grains that balance against all the darkness the world can muster. Why?
Because trying has more depth than succeeding.
Because accepting each day with gratitude, even the horrific days, asserts that love and hope thread through even the worst life has to offer.
Because this is how we show that mercy, kindness, connection and compassion matter more than winning, drama, fame and exploiting the earth and other people for profit.
Because, as Anne Gilchrist wrote to her publisher, William Michael Rossetti:
I used to think it was great to disregard happiness, to press on to a high goal, careless, disdainful of it. But now I see that there is nothing so great as to be capable of happiness; to pluck it out of “each moment and whatever happens”; to find that one can ride as gay and buoyant on the angry, menacing, tumultuous waves of life as on those that glide and glitter under a clear sky; that it is not defeat and wretchedness which come out of the storm of adversity, but strength and calmness.
Small lives lived well declare to the stars that in the midst of this crazy world, the stories can still sing with resistance and resilience, with joy and hope.
But how do we do this? How do we sustain such strength and calm when there seems to be constant bad news, personal, political, ecological …?
Photo by Philipp Cordts on Unsplash
You don’t have to have a religious faith to realise that the Golden Rule is ubiquitous. It’s found in an Egyptian story dating back to at least 2000 BCE. It occurs in the Mahābhārata at the end of a piece of advice from Vidura to King Yuddhiśhṭhira:
… by self-control and by making dharma (right conduct) your main focus, treat others as you treat yourself.
— Mahābhārata Shānti-Parva 167:9
It’s found in Tamil tradition and in Ancient Greece, Persia and Rome. It’s found at the heart of Judaism:
Love your neighbor as yourself. — Leviticus 19:18b
The rabbi, Hillel the Elder, used this to sum up the Torah:
What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn. — Shabbath folio, Babylonian Talmud
And from here it makes its way into Christianity and Islam. We’ve probably all been told at some point:
Do as you would be done by.
But what if we treat ourselves badly? What if we succomb to the internal voices that whisper that we’re not enough, unlovable or unforgivable?
We are often harsh to ourselves. And if we can’t summon an ounce of self-love, what have we to give?
All you have is what you are, and what you give
writes Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in a The Dispossessed: An ambiguous utopia.
When we start telling different stories about ourselves, when we begin showing radical kindness to ourselves, we can do the same for others.
By changing the story
Photo by Jannis Brandt on Unsplash
We begin living small lives well by changing the internal story. And this in turn changes the external story.
It’s hard to change the story when we are consumed with worry or when we are walking that storm front between all that the world is throwing at us and all that our self doubt is hurling at us.
This is why slowing down, saying no to the distractions and to living in the shallows, matters.
This is why Gilchrist is right about not giving in to defeat and wretchedness, but instead finding strength and calm. Hermann Hesse puts it like this:
Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.
I know that I’m least attentive to these when I’m feeling overwhelmed and besieged. So another clue to living a small life well is to get help. Whether we find it in books or friends (online or on the phone if we are separated by a virus), walking (if we’re in areas where we can do so in the current climate) or music, get some nourishment and support.
Do everything possible to find small joys rather than sink into overwhelm and self-pity.
Do everything possible to find kindness for yourself so that you can give kindness in turn.
Photo by Alexei Scutari on Unsplash
The realisation that you matter, that you are enough, that you can tell a different story, isn’t an ego trip. That we matter, that we count and are as deserving of mercy as the next person, the next creature … is not the same as saying we’re the crux of the universe. We can realise that life would go on without us and yet know that self-love is fundamental to be kind and giving people.
Václav Havel, a dissident and writer who became a president, talks about:
humbly accepting our responsibility for the world.
It’s not that we are saviours or super heroes, but simply that:
nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the elemental memory of being.
When we have self compassion, we have it for others.
When we have compassion our small lives become brave.
We live a small life well.
We make the world a fraction more humane.
We tell a different story.
What’s your new story of humanity?
Thank you for reading — new story and transformation has never been so urgent and writing, whether it’s your identity or the journalling that helps you think, is a big part of that. You’ll find free courses here and can also sign up to my email list. While you’re here, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life, which will connect you to more transformative ideas to become a different story.
James Lawless says
Wonderful, encouraging words, Jan.
Thank you James
David Cundall says
wise words Jan
Many thanks, David
Pat Hopper says
I was feeling a little down-hearted and lonely (I’m not used to being solitary) then your email arrived; thank you Jan, after reading it I didn’t feel that the world was quite so bleak.
Thank you so much for this, Pat – it’s a privilege to be able to make a small connection – keep well 🙂 xx
Julie Noble says
Lovely post, thanks for sharing. Much needed in these challenging times.
Thank you, Julie and hope you and your family are all safe and well xx
Sandy Hogarth says
Loved this Jan
Thank you, Sandy
Thank you for this. Most timely. I’ve put that quote by Le Guin up as a reminder.
Thank you, Fokkina
Carolyn O'Connell says
Very encouraging Jan for we still hanker for the stars but the grain of sand is reachable and precious, especially in these times.
That’s so lyrically put, Carolyn 🙂
Shirley charters says
Hi Jan .
Have been following your blog recently .
The recent one is most poignant and I hope you don’t mind me using some of your quotes in my weekly fellowship group . They are both reassuring and thought provoking .
Best regards Shirley
Thamk you Shirley – that’s really kind and you can certainly share it in your group.