Back in the heady days of prep school, a classmate of mine decided to write, direct, and star in his own play. Fair enough. I was still trying to work out if cooties was a real disease. If he wanted to be a playwright, good for him.
When the time came for casting, I wasn’t optimistic. Performances earlier in my career, such as Bashful in Snow White and Captain Hook in Peter Pan, had garnered widespread acclaim, but my powers on the stage had since waned. I was resigned to a bit-part role or perhaps a place on the set-building team.
It turned out my limited musical skills were to be of use. One scene involved a daring heist and I was recruited to play the Mission Impossible theme on my electric guitar, one note at a time.
I sat in a lonely corner of the stage for the entire production, nervously clutching my guitar, until a brief moment in the spotlight. I was then plunged back into darkness.
If I do say so myself, I played rather well and the music did enhance the comedy of the scene. I felt content to play this small part in a grander production.
Fast forward to my present self and I’ve noticed an urge to be more significant. I don’t want to play a bit-part in someone else’s script. I want to be successful, whatever that means. I want to be revered after I’m gone.
It’s not difficult to see why this change has come about.
I’ve always been a tad shy and so was teased at school for being “irrelevant” and “boring”. I later earned the nickname “Mute” in the football team, although this was a somewhat friendlier arrangement.
I’ve grown up in the age of celebrity, inundated with reminders of people who’ve ‘made it’.
And I’m now part of a fiercely ‘meritocratic’ workforce. Everything from starting a business to baking a cake is a competition. A competition that must be won through hard graft to avoid failure and shame. Be the ultimate worker-consumer or melt away to insignificance.
So yeah, I’ve been feeling a pressure to conform to these ideals and play a bigger role in society. There’s an ever-present pressure to be relevant.
But what if I were to aim small again? What if I could be content with a humble station in this world of big ambitions?
These much-needed questions are posed by Kyo Maclear in Birds Art Life Death. It’s a memoir of a difficult time in her life, during which she meets and befriends a musician who loves to photograph birds. She’s intrigued by this passion and joins him for outings in urban birdwatching.
She learns to spot birds in unlikely places and comes to see our winged comrades as emblems of the “small but significant”. Reminders of beauty and lightness in oppressive surroundings.
A chap called Matthew Crawford is quoted in the book as saying, “Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy.”
Maclear thinks learning to appreciate small and significant things - like a chirping bird that flies defiantly through our big, loud world - can help to steady us against these forces.
And we’re not confined to merely cherishing the smallness that already exists. We can create it for ourselves. “I like the perverse audacity of someone aiming tiny”, she says.
We can let go of grand ambitions if we want to, if they only serve to demoralise us. There’s nothing wrong with having small ambitions instead.
For instance, I have let go of my aspirations for turning this blog into something ‘successful’. I don’t want it to make money or attract thousands of readers. It probably wasn’t going to anyway. So I’ve decided to simply enjoy writing it and savour the small achievement of publishing something every couple of weeks.
I’ve also abandoned wild dreams of saving the planet, or at least being a big player in the environmental movement. Such dreams are veiled hopes of fame, of being the hero. Instead, I’m working to get my own house in order and make small contributions to my local community.
But what about my damn legacy? How am I supposed to accept mortality if I can’t cement my place in history?
I decided to pose these questions to a friend. She admitted, “Yes, in the grand scheme of things, our actions and achievements are going to be pretty inconsequential.”
Damn. Just as I suspected.
She went on to point out, “Should we judge ourselves against the grand scheme of things? How useful is it to do so, really? Surely it’s just as useful to think small as it is to think big, partly because we can’t achieve huge things overnight and partly because there’s great value to be found in smaller achievements.”
Wise words indeed. Valuing smallness - and being content with a little life - might be the best antidote to my anxiety.
It could also reduce my impact on the world, whereas attempting to achieve huge things overnight usually ends up causing more harm than good - something I realised after reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.
It’s a story of two teenagers with cancer. One reacts to his situation in a way we can all relate to - Augustus is obsessed with living a meaningful life. He fears a death of insignificance and is determined to “leave behind some great sign of heroism.”
The other character, Hazel, has no such fears. She is content to observe. Her aim is to survive each day, feeling and inflicting as little pain as possible.
In the end, Augustus realises the virtue of Hazel’s modesty.
“Here’s the thing about Hazel: Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world. Bequeathing a legacy. Outlasting death. We all want to be remembered. I do, too.”
“But... the marks humans leave are too often scars.”
“Hazel is different... She walks lightly upon the earth. Hazel knows the truth: We’re as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we’re not likely to do either. People will say it’s sad that she leaves a lesser scar, that fewer remember her, that she was loved deeply but not widely. But it’s not sad... It’s triumphant.”
Ironically, those words left a lasting impression on me. A life of aiming tiny and treading lightly feels right again.
“The world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” - Pete Seeger