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Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Joys of the Small Life

Cups of tea symbolize the joys of the small life
Is it enough to live a small life? That is the question, Readers. After all, small lives are often the subjects of books. Of big books, even. Shouldn’t that answer the question in the affirmative? After all, if you’ve made it into a book, well, that is something. 

And yet, some of us (remaining nameless) pine for something more. Something More. Achievement. Recognition. Dare I say it - success? 

Perhaps my question is silly. Of course it's okay to live a small life. After all, most people do. And they don't feel small. Perhaps the question I'm more interested in is why are some people happy with lower-case-a-achievement while others jones for upper-case-A-Achievement? 

Look, here I am undermining my whole blog. Haven’t I been trying to find a way to merge success with regular life? Why, yes, I have. That has been my mind experiment. And I have done pretty well. I have figured out my system, my method, my scaffolding on which to build a feeling of success. But sometimes some of us (remaining nameless) want more than a feeling of success. We want actual goals met. You know - achievements.

Well, in fact, I think I’ve shown that we all want to achieve goals. That is the essence of living a life of meaning and purpose. But I struggle with the goals. I question why some people are fine with small goals, while others want BIG goals. 

This brings us to the fish-pond question. You know the one. Would you rather be a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond? That's pretty clear. It's about how ambitious you are. What no one asks is do you want to be a small fish in a small pond? Because not everyone can be a big fish. Not that being a big fish is a zero-sum proposition. There can be more than one big fish. But not everyone can be a big fish, since big fishness is a matter of proportion, and proportion is relative. What happens to all the small fish? Are they all okay being small fish? 

Am I content being a small fish?

What if you're a small fish who wants to be big? It's taking every ounce of my self-control not to go for the obvious pun here. Aw, heck, I have insufficient self-control. What if you're a small fish who wants to be big? Well, then you're scrod. 

Get it? Scrod - screwed? 

Thank you. I'll be here all week. 

Anyway. I've talked to many people about success, and one thing I've noticed is that people feel successful because they have fulfilled their ambitions. And their ambitions are entirely reasonable. For example, being nominated for teacher of the year in their state - but not winning. Or filling the slots in their therapy practice.

Then there are other people. The people who want More. I was walking with a friend - let's call her Julia - the other day, and she was telling me about her friend who feels dissatisfied with her life. This friend of Julia's says she feels like she is meant to do More, to Achieve something. And she asked Julia, "Don't you feel like that?" And Julia said, "No. I feel pretty good with where I am."

Although of course on this walk, Julia then wondered to me if she ought to be feeling like she wanted More. And I thought, Goodness, no! If you are happy with where you are in life, you are good. 

I suppose this question of satisfaction with fish size and pond size boils down to my mathematical definition of success. That's right, there’s a formula for it.  The formula is X=Y, when X=achievement and Y=ambition. Or vice-versa. Here is a graph that shows what happens when success equals achievement. 
Ridiculously hard to make this graph online, so....

This is ideal. This is the perfect balance, right? No matter your level of ambition, your achievement equals it. Yup. Simple. 

Of course, life is not actually simple. All kinds of things can cause the graph to fluctuate. Well, actually, not all kinds of things. On an x/y graph, only the x & y data can fluctuate. But they do. Oh, they do. So what if the level of ambition is much higher than the level of achievement?

Well, then you have people like me, I suppose. We aim high, but might achieve little. So is that okay? What if we turn into bitter old ladies? Biddies, one might say, if biddie=bitter plus lady.  Does it? Let's say it does. Is that where bitter old ladies come from? Disappointed ambition? This is when Pema Chodron comes in handy

This brings me to another point, a much less tragic one. In one way, ambition must constantly recalibrate itself, because once you achieve a goal, it's human nature to formulate a new one. Furthermore, creativity in all areas of life requires this readjustment. Once a goal is conceived, strived for, and reached, creativity demands a new one. This idea is fundamental to the ideas of mastery and flow, which I’ve mentioned before, flow being fundamental to happiness and success; mastery being fundamental to flow; the dynamic relationship between the challenging but not too challenging mini-goal and the drive to meet it being fundamental to mastery. And all of it essential to living a life of meaning and purpose. So, in short, achievement and ambition are necessary, although levels must vary.

Which brings me to Barbara Pym. I suppose it’s no coincidence that while I await the publishing verdict on my book proposal, a verdict which could potentially mark a large achievement with a capital-A, I have returned to Pym’s books. Pym takes the reader into the smallest of small worlds, the small parish near or in Oxford, England in the 1950s-1970s, the world of spinsters, of cups of tea, of crushes on curates and gentlewomen’s companions. It’s a keenly observed world where very little happens, and things that do are pretty darn small and centered in the parish. And yet, everything is there that makes life meaningful: goals, ideas, purpose, some religion, community (too much), independence of thought, depth of feeling, and human connection. In short, these small subjects, as I mentioned above, make worthy subjects for books. So I will extrapolate that, yes, small lives are inherently worthy. And I will try to make peace with mine. 

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