Feeling Small in the Storm

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton, “Feeling small in the storm.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (February 10): 7A. [The Press-Citizen column includes a photograph, which is necessary for fulling comprehending the text.]

Sometimes one can feel very small. Like when shoveling snow after a 2,000 mile long storm dumps 16 inches of snow on your sidewalk. Or when watching many thousands of Egyptians call for their President leave office after more than 30 years of autocratic rule, only to be attacked by vicious thugs who had rallied to the ruler’s side.

In an important sense we are quite small.

Consider two young Americans walking in the sand at the edge of the Rio Grande River. Mere specks in the landscape, they are nearing Santa Elena Canyon at the far southwestern tip of Big Bend National Park. The U. S. extends for thousands of miles off to the left. The Republic of Mexico begins on the right just a quick splash across the river.

A shadow looms over the river. Out of sight, just behind the photographer, canyon walls loom 1500 feet above the couple. For two or more million years, the river has been cutting a narrow canyon through the Mesa de Anguila escarpment, which was formed by the Terlingua Fault beginning about 26 million years ago. Immense boulders containing 135 million year old fossilized marine organisms litter the canyon floor, eroded from high above.

Or consider lying at the river’s edge, staring up at the stars on a clear moonless night. Breathing. Cool sand beneath you. Wind in the reeds. Coyotes howling in the distance.

How can one not feel small?

Our individual lives pass in the blink of an eye. Autocratic rulers fall like boulders to the canyon floor. Armed clashes between nations merit but a nod. They are all but a moment, all just different manifestations of a perpetual now.

As Orhan Pamuk has one of his characters understand in the novel, My Name is Red: “Before my birth there was infinite time, and after my death, inexhaustible time. I never thought of it before. I’d been living luminously between two eternities of darkness.”

And yet, here we are. Understanding we are small, how shall we act in this luminous ever unfolding now?

On a train going north, two young people laugh. “It’s all going to come to an end,” one of them says. “Did you know there’s a big hole in the ozone over the South Pole. We’re all going to die.”

Yes, we are very small. Yes, we do face enormous challenges. Yes, we are all going to die. But this does not mean that our future has already been predetermined, and that we should strive only to maximize our short-term profit and pleasure.

No, our choices will influence how the future unfolds. Consequently we need to slow down and pay attention to what really matters: caring for oneself, caring for one another, and caring for the world. And think about how our actions can contribute to a larger whole.

Which reminds me of a story Annette Simmons tells in her 2001 book, The Story Factor:

“A man came upon a construction site where three people were working. He asked the first, ‘What are you doing?’ and the man answered, ‘I am laying bricks.’ He asked the second, ‘What are you doing?’ and the man answered, ‘I am building a wall.’ He walked up to the third man, who was humming a tune as he worked and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and the man stood up and smiled and said, ‘I am building a cathedral.’”

No matter how small we are, our choices matter.

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