Pema Chödrön, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, says we have to learn to be both big and small at the same time. Big, as in we are worthy because we exist. Small, as in we exist to serve humanity.
I can not think of a better roadmap for being a human, and an activist.
Learn to be both big and small at the same time.
Be big – we are worthy because we exist.
The idea that each of us is worthy and valuable, ‘one of a kind’, simply because our completely unique mixture of DNA, experience, history, place in time, family, culture, brain, body, appearance, and personality. Each of us has something to contribute to society in a way that will never occur again, and has never occurred before. It’s kind of a mind-blowing concept – the true uniqueness and individuality of each person who has ever existed. I can not think of a bigger honor or a challenge than to be truly ourselves in our lives. Heady stuff indeed.
For those with latent or active narcissist tendencies, or those who have joined the cult of worshiping the ‘individual’, and damn the collective, the essentially free pass to be big would be a giant justification for selfishness, without the balance of serving humanity. For those who have been beaten down through any of the many negative factors around us, the idea of being big may be insulting, dangerous, laughable, or overwhelming. Factors including racism, sexism, bigotry, classism, environmental or economic disadvantages, brain disorders, physical limitations – and the list goes on. And yet, we can be our biggest selves because of these factors, however unfair or debilitating they are, in part because they shape who we are. Adversity may stink, but it also drives us to change and challenge the status quo, to serve both humanity and ourselves.
But being big is not enough. As Pema Chödrön states, we must also learn to be small.
Be small – serve humanity.
To live in service to others, being humble, helping, caring, compassionate, empathic – these are qualities that are deeply embedded in our cultures, our religions, our families, our literature, our stories, our songs. We instinctively know that none of us will survive, much less thrive, without each other. Even the rare soul who goes to live off the grid, away from humanity, is dependent on the world around them, on the animals, plants, water, and oxygen. Too many hideous experiments involving depriving children, or primates, of love, attention, and language, have demonstrated that being isolated is enormously damaging to our brains and selves. No one can live only as an individual.
Harnessing our unique big selves to humbly serve humanity is the only way we reach our full potential.
Prince Philip summed up the complexity of being both big and small at the same time in a uniquely public manner. Buried this week, Prince Philip died at the age of 99 after a robust, opinionated, and full life. Whether you liked his style or not, whether you found his gaffes endearing or offensive, regardless of your views on monarchies, it appears that Prince Philip lived big, as if he was worthy to exist. He was clearly an individual with his own interests and an unwillingness to subdue his strong personality, A person who chose to make the most of his life after a challenging early start, however privileged. The Prince was also married to Queen Elizabeth II for 73 years, making him the longest serving consort of the longest reigning monarch in British history. By all accounts he dedicated himself to serving Queen and country, including association with 992 charities and official trips to 143 countries. He made himself small to serve humanity.
We may not like the big and small in others. We may disagree with them. Regardless, the ways in which we are each big and small continue to shape every part of our world. The actions of others may be abhorrent to us, but this may spur us into action and encourage us to speak out, to serve humanity more intently. Conversely, we find others who express our beliefs more eloquently, or force us to look more deeply within ourselves to pull out our biggest self.
Achieving the balance between big and small is the greatest challenge. We should not live only for ourselves, nor should we subjugate ourselves only for society. The balance undoubtedly takes each of us a lifetime to achieve, if ever.
It’s not just individuals, it’s communities, and countries that develop a strong tendency towards either the individual or broader society, towards being big or small. Rarely is there a perfect balance. History shows us a pendulum of people and countries swinging between the individual and society, living big or small, and only rarely and fleetingly, perhaps, finding the perfect balance of being big, because we exist, and small, because we exist to serve humanity. Like a pendulum, the swings become less drastic over time, not necessarily because the pendulum is exhausted, but because a perfect balance is achieved. A worthy goal for every life.
Learn to be both big and small at the same time.
Big, as in we are worthy because we exist.
Small, as in we exist to serve humanity.