How big should your life be? Do you want to travel, do great things, be famous, learn all you can, become friends with fascinating people, get rich? That sounds like a lot of work, but shouldn’t we maximize the talents and opportunities we are given? Maybe we should follow the US Army’s recruitment slogan advice to “Be all you can be.”
For myself, I would be highly skeptical of life advice given by the world’s biggest killing machine. They might not have our best interests at heart. Neither do the advertisers beckoning us to buy, consume, or travel our way to happiness. Marketers know that selling things requires making customers feel their lives are incomplete without the advertised product.
Trying for all you can be has become an accepted goal in our culture. Religious blogger Lauren Hunter says it’s a lie that hurts people, particularly women. “We’re taught to aspire to achieve all that we can,” she writes, “even to the point of driving ourselves into the ground.”
Eli Finkel, author of The All or Nothing Marriage, writes that this striving for more has screwed up a lot of modern marriages. Finkel told interviewer Olga Khazan, “On top of the expectation that we’re going to love and cherish our spouse, we’ve added the expectation that our spouse will help us grow, help us become a better, more authentic version of ourselves. Those two goals are often incompatible.” How can you help people change, he asks without conveying dissatisfaction with the way they are?
Finkel’s solution is for partners to get their life coaching outside the marriage, but why do people need to do it all? I think of people like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. Those two have certainly lived large, but have they made the world better? Have they been happy? They don’t look it. Would they and the rest of us have been better off if they didn’t take up so much space?
One can be unbalanced on the small side, too, like my 75-year-old neighbor Jack might be. He had been a small town district attorney, but 35 years ago he moved to San Francisco to take care of his mother Elise. At that point, Elise didn’t need much care, but now that she is 107, Jack needs to be there almost constantly. It’s just the two of them in a two bedroom apartment. His life has pretty much come down to YouTube and Elise.
Neighbors, family, and would-be girlfriends sometimes tell Jack that he has mistakenly given up his own life to care for Elise. He disagrees. He says his love for his mother is all the love he needs and that he constantly grows spiritually because of his living situation.
Other people – I am one of them — struggle with trying to be big and small at the same time. I was a smart child and a good writer. Excelling at school was easy for me; my parents kept telling me I could do whatever I wanted. They also shared their own do-gooder values, which I interpreted as ‘saving the world.’ From this history, I wound up thinking I could influence the world with my writing, and that I wouldn’t have to work too hard to do it.
As a result, my writing suffers from trying to cover too much ground and teach too much, and it’s not focused enough to capture a big audience. At the same time, I haven’t spent the long hours writing and marketing that it takes to build a platform for my work. So I remain a small niche market.
We can’t do it all
The world gives infinite choices. Some of us may have multiple talents and few barriers, but we still have to choose what and how much to go for. Whatever the military recruiters and advertisers say, we can’t “be all we can be.” We can go crazy trying. The key is to find the things that are right for us.
In her amazing book Braiding Sweetgrass, Native American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer PhD writes about how three plants, corn, beans, and squash (called the “three sisters”) work together to optimize their growth and health. The corn grows tall, and the beans climb up the stalks. The squash with its big leaves protect both from weeds and insects, and the beans fix nitrogen from the air into the soil for all to use. None of them could do as well alone.
Human analogs of the Three Sisters are everywhere. On a basketball team, not everyone can be a high-scoring star. They need defenders, passers, rebounders, coaches, trainers. In a band, not everyone can be the lead singer; they need backup singers and musicians. So, you don’t need to be the star to help create, to enjoy life, or to get paid.
We don’t have to be bigger than we are, or smaller either. If we have the talent, energy, and dedication to be a star, we shouldn’t hold ourselves back. Dr. Kimmerer wouldn’t have been able to write her books and share her wisdom if she hadn’t gone back to school for a masters’ and doctorate in plant ecology. Basketball star Steph Curry wouldn’t be such a great player if he hadn’t practiced thousands of hours year after year. They followed their paths because they loved them, and probably gave up many other possibilities to focus on them.
The artist Pablo Picasso said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” Both finding and giving our gifts might be a lot of work and might not look big at all. Physicist Albert Einstein lived a pretty big life and changed the world with his Theory of Relativity, but he credited for his success, “the monotony and solitude of a quiet life,” which “stimulates the creative mind.” His version of a big life didn’t include living large.
Other cultures have long promoted this balanced view. Chinese sage Lao-Tse, founder of Taoism, wrote
Great acts are made up of small deeds.
So the wise soul does not attempt anything big,
And thus achieves greatness.
(Tao Te Ching Ch. 63)
Monks and nuns and other spiritual seekers usually choose smaller lives. if one’s priority is seeking God or enlightenment, one doesn’t want too much distraction. Some of these people become saints. Going small is an expected change for old people in Hinduism, to gain wisdom and give back to the community. They are expected to meditate more and withdraw from social entanglements, allowing for a focus on love, connection, and spirit.
Hinduism is clear that the best size of life changes with time. Different life situations might also call on us to adjust how we measure and live our lives. Probably, the COVID pandemic shutdowns caused most of us to adjust how large we expected to live.
Not always your choice
We don’t always get to choose our life size. Some people live big lives thrust on them against their will. Reading biographies of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, he didn’t set out to lead a tremendous civil rights movement, win the Nobel Peace Prize at age 35 and be assassinated by the FBI at age 39. He trained to be a preacher, enjoying the attention of female parishioners, but the world called him to a much bigger life, and he chose to live it and suffer the consequences.
Far more often, people have smaller lives forced on them. Because of disability, poverty, family needs, or discrimination, some are prevented from doing things at which they could otherwise excel. For women under patriarchy, workers under capitalism, serfs and slaves, prisoners and many others, living large is only a dream. In my view as disabled person, it’s best to acknowledge the barriers one faces. Find ways to work around them when possible and desired, but be realistic about what’s optimum for you.
You’ll know you’re at the right size when
۰You work hard when you need or want to, and take it easy in-between
۰You don’t regret responsibilities accepted or opportunities not taken
۰You are not held back by fear or low self-esteem
۰You have enough love and connection to others
۰You are not doing harm to anyone.
For me, that’s all there is. If you’re satisfied with your life, it’s probably a good size.
People write books and blogs every day on having a bigger, more successful life. Advertisers, motivational speakers, and a whole society promote having more, doing more, being more. “More” can be a recipe for frustration and harmful behavior, but keeping small out of fear or laziness isn’t good either.
As Kimmerer and Picasso agree, find your gift and share it, even if that means spending time on things you don’t like, such as self-promotion or going back to school. But getting bigger is not a have-to. Being your own size is best. It’s OK to get help to figure out what that size is at a particular time.