Spiritual Journey: In Search of Smallness ~ BitterSweetLife

Monday, May 02, 2005

Spiritual Journey: In Search of Smallness

How We Look for Humility In All The Wrong Places

Like many people, I believe a sense of smallness in relation to the universe is wise, and can be useful. But unmediated smallness can leave one comatose, hiding under a rock, or locked in a “religious” trance—which is really the same thing. How can we acknowledge our finitude without drowning in it?

Sometimes the problem is one of initial orientation. As the proverbial farmer supposedly said to the disoriented traveler, “If there is where you’re trying to get, here is not the place to start.” We often let the wrong things reduce us.

Repetitive trials often seem the common factor in life. Arguably, life “belittles” us, but there’s a horrible irony in how she does it. It’s the minutia that get us, small details that ruin us by their pure banality. Parking tickets, spilled coffee, petty snubs, network crashes, nervous ticks, messages buried in junk mail… Stacked end to end, life’s trivialities dwarf us. Long commutes home break more people than the waves of the Atlantic. Few people lie in bed whimpering over sunsets.

In reality, the necessary finitude of life is not generated by faulty traffic flow or corporate politics. Nuisances are not ultimately humbling.

When a hundred paltry necessities neutralize us, or we’re smacked down by King Urgent, we may think we are learning “smallness.” In reality, we’re watching traffic zoom by the neck of a dead-end alley. We think we’re approaching humility when in fact “here is not the place to start.” “Today was a bear; therefore I’m humble” is an invalid syllogism.

Suppose we step back. We’ve been trying to document smallness in the wrong environment. Realizing all our camera work has been in vain, we pull down the lights, throw it all in the van, and restart the shoot. On the new set, we open the aperture wide, then pan in. What’s this, a dirty golf ball? Ah, my bad—in the words of the Switchfoot song, “Welcome to the planet, welcome to existence; everyone’s here…” We’re seeking a new context for smallness, and we think we’ve found it: the gigantic universe.

We’re staring into the cosmos, and there’s earth, a small watery sphere wrapped in cloudy gauze. We see the globe, and it’s…little. Little?—it’s infinitesimal. The golf ball idea was more apt than we realized. Here, then, is the setting for humility. The surrounding bigness, not the surrounding pettiness, is the source, correct? And so we stare into the sky after a long day at the office, and muse, like Stephen Spielberg, that we are just little blips of A.I. after all. Or do we?

As we look into the star fields, it strikes us, as it did G.K. Chesterton, that there is nothing inherently better about bigness. As he wrote, “Man was always small compared to the nearest tree.” If we revere the starry nebulae, why not the Grand Canyon? If the Grand Canyon, why not a whale? If a whale, why not our fat uncle? No one argues that, obviously, Oprah is better than Mother Teresa. Bigness is not the key. If painful minutia is a dead end alley, plain magnitude is an empty auditorium.

Where then should we turn in our search for cogent smallness? We’ve ruled out grating nuisances as petty and chaotic. We’ve disqualified the cosmos on the basis of their inexpressive vastness. Somehow, though, we know that “littleness” is desirable—we all long for it in others, however disingenuously we cultivate it ourselves. We sense that a person should have a quietude about her, a willingness to admit limitations. The words “reverence” “awe” and “wonder” may or may not come into play, but they likely represent part of what we think: that wise people are not pretentious. If we come to the point of honesty, we wish to acknowledge our own bounds; some corner of us wants to throw up our hands and bow to something.

After surviving a few firefights, we acknowledge the innate rightness of modesty. We don’t always win at everything. We must be taken with a grain of salt, and most of us know it. But a smallness built on air is ludicrous. No one is pleasingly self-doubting and deferential merely by intending to be so—he must have provocation. And ultimately, because we know a sense of finitude is necessary for every human (not just those who admit it), the provocation must be universal.

We don’t question the reductive ability of our failed alternatives; taken in isolation, they work, but they work to the wrong end: Nagging mishaps may “reduce” us—but the result is an anguished driven-ness. Spatial vastness may dwarf us—but the result is a limpid passivity.

Undeterred, we continue to seek this elusive smallness, this existential modesty we sense is right. And this time our search is rewarded. As we begin to pull our cameras down again, the scene instantly changes—but we haven’t moved. A drama unfolds in front of us, and we didn’t cue it up. The lighting dims, and an altered world appears.

The universe, the part of it surrounding earth at least—flares with light. The light is brighter than stars, and it dances like no radiance we’ve seen before. A divine electricity arcs and gleams with laughter, and for a moment, we get it:

The cosmos are electric with the power of God, sparking with his expectation like a high voltage wire. The world spins—a foam fleck in the sea of space—the sea of God’s purposes and plans, and God waits—if God can be said to wait—for earth to run its course, to fulfill her purpose as the prime jewel in his crown. Christ tends his creation artfully, and it grows, with us inside it. The next journey—the greater and truer and unending journey—will soon begin. We sense, without seeing, the God of unbearable brilliance, whose suns revolve in his palms like fireflies.

This God of mice and men, Ruler of creatures and cosmos—his world is not a dingy world, nor materially insignificant. But “size” transcends mere mass, and in relation to Christ, the galaxies, let alone the earth, are tiny. The world is a speck, a dot, an atom—but it’s an atom that shines like diamonds. The Creator has infused it with life. As the reel runs into blackness, we sense a Presence at our backs. There is an Audience behind the audience; the footage flickers in our retinas.

When the theatre leaves us, it is still daylight, and we rub our eyes. Beneath us, our globe hangs in space, a brackish blip on the canvas of all created being. It keeps turning, but the universe is not huge, and life is not annoyingly monotonous.

We can hardly reckon the course of our spiraling lives, let alone their worth. We do know one thing, though: as we kneel before the Creator, we feel the gravity of a momentous smallness and a terrible beauty. We are smaller and more valuable than stars, we who walk “alone” on earthly streets.

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Dannyvan said...

It's good to be reminded of the real reason to be humble or small. We're not to bask in abasement for the sheer pleasure of it, but to honestly accept our smallness in light of God's greatness. And then, like David, our soul can enjoy the rest of a contented infant, safe in the arms of our strong Father.
Good post, Arie.

Anonymous said...

Just as I finished reading this post, I noticed a little gnat resting on the rim of my coffee cup. Exerting the very power of my "bigness" I reached over with my gigantic thumb(gigantic compared to the gnat, that is) and squished it. Then I realized the irony of the moment! I had just finished reading your thoughts about "bigness and smallness" and here I was seeing a living example of it! The thought came into my head that I am so thankful that God does not exert the sheer bigness of His being in the way I wielded my "bigness" against the gnat. He, being powerful, larger- than-life, could choose to crush me in my "gnatiness" (sorry for my liberal use of the English language). He could treat me with indifference or even mild disgust (as I treated the gnat on the cup) and wipe me out without a thought. But God is not this way. He, being the God who is love, (talk about being amazingly larger-than-life!)chooses to turn His favor upon us tiny humans. He who is a consuming fire, seeks to give us life, not take it away. How kind God is to those He created. He wants to swallow up all the dead things in our tiny lives with the bigness of Himself and draw us into the abundance of His blessings. And.. even though He could exert his power and make us follow after Him, He has decided to give us the choice. God doesn't force us into relationship with Himself. Amazing!

See what you've done, Ariel? I read your post and all of a sudden gnats become fused with meaning. Hey, I guess your blogging is working, isn't it?



Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife