Know This Love: Greatness in small things
I stand at a crossroads on the outskirts of a little town called Illusion.
Over my shoulder, I can still catch the faint glow of the lights fading behind me into twilight. But they will soon fall into the horizon, and already they’re far too distant to light my path.
The town of Illusion is a place of certainties, whether few or many, that we all have to leave one day. The metaphor becomes a bit thin when we discuss how some never leave their illusions behind, while others shed only those of a small child, and a very, very few see the world with fresh eyes.
It would be egomaniacal of me to believe I have no egocentric illusions left to block my path of sight, but after a decade of chronic pain and perpetual introspection, I can confidently say I’ve left a huge majority of them behind.
Like so many twenty-somethings who find themselves at these crossroads, I’m trying to determine where I fit into the world. I’ve been told throughout my life that I have something to give the world, and that fact is reinforced to me daily by all kinds of people.
I’ve become mildly obsessed with reading about the lives of great men and women who have followed a course of action that led them to be remembered long after their deaths, and more importantly, to leave a lasting impact on both their spheres of influence and the world at large.
It’s not prestige or even being remembered that I care about.
Writing these columns, even, is for me, not for you. If you happen to enjoy reading them, if I happen to get paid for them — well, all the better. But those factors are not prerequisites to the act itself.
This week I whizzed through a short biography of Howard Carter, the famously moody Egyptologist who discovered King Tut’s tomb in Egypt nearly 100 years ago. The man was, in short, a miserable fellow to be around and even to be — he had an awful temper and seemed to be ever in conflict with someone from the beginning of his career to his dying day, most of which was his own fault.
His focus upon his work was obsessive. He ate, breathed, and spoke archaeology and excavation, working even on Christmas. Marriage was probably never even considered, and he had few friends.
Compare this with Isaac Newton, whom I wrote about a few weeks back in my column on great men and women. While I placed a different focus on his obsessive qualities by highlighting his greatness rather than his neurosis, loneliness and lack of love in his life, he seems to me very similar to Carter.
Both men gave themselves completely to their pursuits. I cannot say whether either men were driven by God or by his own internal impetus — though perhaps they are one in the same. But in each case, and in the cases of so many others who impacted society and human civilization in a real way, the common thread is that they lived their passions.
The trouble (if that’s the word for it) for me is that I have many passions. None is strong enough to be called an obsession, though I’ve had passing obsessions in my life, whether it be writing, drumming or chess.
Rather than an interest in one subject in school, I’d like to simultaneously take classes in everything and nothing. (Okay, not calculus, but most everything else.) I’m currently considered a psychology and Spanish double-major, but who knows if those will be the degrees I’ll graduate with.
All this seems to preclude me from achieving something truly magnificent in the sense that history represents.
But perhaps we have misunderstood accomplishment. Perhaps it is not the ones who are remembered by history who lived lives worth living. Newton, Carter — men such as these were not happy. And while happiness is not the only measure of a life well-lived, isn’t it at least a major consideration?
Another man whose biography I’ve been working through is I.F. Stone, the famous progressive journalist. He too was a man inspired by his mission — to write and in doing so, to inform people and to advocate for what he felt was right — but he was also happy.
This week I’ve taken on as a personal mantra this phrase I synthesized from my readings and conversations with mentors and friends:
“My joy is in correctly receiving the challenges of the day.”
That is, I am fulfilled by success in very ordinary actions: washing the dishes, retrieving my license from a UPS customer center where I forgot it, dealing with computer issues that looked at first as though they would force me to buy a new laptop (but didn’t).
To remain serene and centered in these moments is an accomplishment worth living, because these moments are what make up most of our lives. This is my measure of greatness for myself, for now.
And really, these aren’t small things when combined with the fact that I’m going to school full-time in a new place where I have no family and few friends — all while recovering my health from a deep, long-term illness.
That’s not small at all.
I do not know where I’ll go from here, because that path is still unfolding. I cannot know what the future will bring, or if I even have one. But I have this moment, in which I can live a life that is as full as I’m able to make it.
This column, as I’m writing it, deserves every bit of my focus and attention, to be my masterpiece of this moment. Next, it will be to drive downtown and get groceries for the week. Each task is worthy of being called great if I perform it from the right frame of mind.