My grandfather wrote a typewritten letter to my father and his siblings while they were in college. It's a relic of carbon paper — littered with my grandpa's XXX'd-out corrections — telling my dad about the purchasing of a new car, particularly how grandma didn't like the model, wanted a different one, and how my grandfather got what she wanted. Also included in the letter are plans for the annual fishing trip — one which I now join, being the third generation of men in my family to do so. The letter is full of my grandfather's wit and misplaced humor, traits that passed from him, to my father, to me.
This one-page correspondence means nothing to anybody except me and my family (those few who know it exists). I dug it up out of the basement and my dad only offered a "huh, wouldja lookat that" when I shared it with him. It would not be valuable to any collector, or any biographer, or any journalist. There is no one actively seeking to catalog my grandfather's life, or my father's life, or my life. There probably never will be, and a common person would argue that nobody should. Our lives are too small, even put together. A single volume chronicling all three generations would be boring to the vast majority of people, and nobody would be wrong to assume such.
But my grandfather's life is not boring to me. My life is not boring to my dad. It's hopefully not going to be boring to my child, someday. The lives around us seem to be mere whispers spoken among strangers you will never meet. Even that is gracious, underlining subtleties that the universe wouldn't miss. We are each a moment of breath, some of us a mere letter or syllable, in the context of the lives around us. Even "small" becomes a word too large for us to fit into.
However, we are ambitious. While I believe life has no inherent reason behind it, we ask ourselves anyway: why am I alive? Those of us who gleefully eschew the spiritual path often feel burdened with this question. What reasons do we have for persisting day-to-day? Most lives are small on human scale, let alone historical scale, or the unknowable cosmic scale.
We know all about the big lives, the lives that everyone seems to follow. We all know about Lindsay Lohan, Brad Pitt, or Steve Jobs, or Gandhi, or whoever. Did they change the nature of the universe? No, but they can change our perception of it at a broad enough scale to seem superhuman. These are the big lives, and they are most often only reflections of our fear of smallness. Celebrity itself is the struggle against our individual fear of being a nobody. Everyone wants to be famous, but can there be relief within the smallness of life?
We have the individual, who is by themselves. We have our immediate circle of friends and/or family, which distracts us from our aloneness. We then expand out to the local, in which there can be a kind of minor celebrity. Then out to the global, to the celebrity themselves. The celebrity is no longer a self, but a shadow or placeholder for an ascribed self. There is Gandhi, the man; there is Gandhi, the celebrity. One is real, and small, and knowable, and the other is an abstraction holding all that we may feel or think or want of him. One cannot celebrate the small life; one cannot deify it. To live with Gandhi would be to see his flaws, to see the fact that he gets sick sometimes, like the rest of us, to see that he has hopes that aren't fulfilled, the ones that are no more grand than our own.
We have to "humanize" a celebrity, as if at one point they became not human. We are surprised when a celebrity is found cheating on their spouse, as if they have graduated beyond humanity. When they make mistakes, we see our mistakes, and in forgiving them we forgive ourselves. In hating them, we hate ourselves. Part of this is to believe that our mistakes, projected onto them, make our own lives bigger than they are. We want to play in our mind that we are being watched by millions, that our continued existence is validated by countless strangers.
But we are all small lives, especially to each other. This is a good thing, a humbling thing. What makes our lives truly "big" is when we have done well for others, made the world better for them. My father's life is small, but he has improved my life, and he has improved the lives of others around him. It's vanity to believe that one's life is anything more than a speck, a grain of sand, or a note in the orchestra of life. Even the Gandhis, the philosophers, and the politicians. The world moves on, with our without us, whether we are a celebrity or a nobody. Everyone in the world is unified by this principle: that we are each small, but capable of such good that magnifies ourselves as contributors to the betterment of the whole. This is a human condition.
The new millennia has already begun to threaten this humble understanding of our world, just when we need it most. Social media promises and convinces us that we are more important than we are. It measures us as large, networked, and influential. It artificially broadens our belief in ourselves by filling our lives with numbers that serve to affirm some hitherto unexplored greatness. As if beyond every conscious thought writ onto Twitter there's a hundred thousand retweets that'll make us relevant to all of humanity. The twenty-first century thus far assumed that the new frontier of human understanding is not the universe beyond ourselves but the dense and gratifying individualism within. Every person has something to say, even if it's only 140 characters, and it's worth saying aloud to millions of people. This revelation recurs like a broken record every moment, and the internet grows larger like a virus of self-importance.
The humility that a person can lead a small life and be grateful for those they truly do touch begins to wither and be replaced by an unending ambition for more followers, more subscribers, more people to share with. There is the belief that since we can now speak to someone from across the world, we should start inundating them with every random thought that idles through our minds while we wait in line at a franchise coffee shop. Especially if the person on the other side of the world is standing in a similar line at the same franchise coffee shop, idling reading that other person's message because a moment of boredom might make us feel small and suffocatingly alone. It might make us crash hard into the reality of the present moment.
Our greatest fear in this era is open spaces. Specifically, the metaphysical open space of our minds. What happens to the person in line, waiting for coffee, when they forgot their phone at home? They are left to idle in line without distraction, so they seek another distraction. A newspaper, perhaps, or maybe a reassessment of the available coffee options. The last thing anyone under 30 wants in their day is seclusion and a space free of distraction. There are a hundred online guides and printed books for how to "decrease the clutter" in your life, be more productive, focus, and so forth. We give children medication for it now more than ever. But what do all of these things miss? The subtlety of the small life. We each are so desperate to lead "big" lives that we create reality shows of our friendships — we no longer need to watch TV or read tabloids to find them, we just go online and read the real-time feeds of what our friends are doing.
No one wants the blank page, the open field, the unexplored void of space, because they make us turn inward. Looking at our parents make us realize that our lives are small, meaningless, often without anything of cultural importance. We spend hours every day trying to make ourselves feel relevant to someone else so that it may justify our continued existence — but why? To what end? That when we die, our tombstone will not be our name but the number of times we've been retweeted? That there will be a several thousand page volume of every activity you've ever done, because they've all been recorded online through photos and status updates? Do we measure ourselves by how high that stack of paper reaches? We must realize that the ineffable quality of the small life is in how it cannot be defined. Because of this, we ourselves cannot be defined. Our continued efforts to try to define ourselves with numbers only serves to destroy that which makes us great as a single human culture.
I'm not going to say that my father had to face this problem because he didn't have an iPhone to bury himself with. I've asked him how he dealt with crippling teenage existential questions of "why am I alive?" and "what should I do with my life?" His answer was always: live one day at a time, figure it out, be patient. Never take momentary comfort for granted. Life goes on, so get used to it. People in their 20s somehow see this as giving up or selling out or settling down. I see it as accepting the present reality. Once you do so, you can move beyond it.
The "don't give in to life" attitude seems to be a constant pursuit of some kind of satisfaction. I suffer this myself: I'm constantly put-off by the idea of not doing something "productive" with my time. I think every moment sitting around watching TV is a waste of a moment of life. Every moment not spent writing something like this, where my thoughts are hammered out and made clear, is a missed opportunity. Every moment not spent out and about, doing something exciting and new, is just dull monotony. And further, every moment not spent doing something that could potentially reach out to millions is another moment I'm just me, alone, by myself. But this attitude is too ambitious. It's unrealistic and vain.
Then how do I find that satisfaction? Maybe part of life is finding that it's misplaced. It is impossible to hold within one mind the totality of all human things and how we might impact them, therefore it is useless to compare oneself on such terms. It's impossible to hold in your mind how you ought to be living from now until forever. You're going to die someday. Try to live as best you can doing the most good within the smallness that life may give you.
The man who is remembered by millions may have said nothing at all of value, but each of us has the chance to say something of value to those around us, even if it will only be remembered by those precious few. That small humility is what expands the world's goodness and makes us greater than each could individually be. I will remember my father, and try to do for others at least the good he did for me. The whispered lives around me may all be speaking of the same things, maybe that's what makes us all human. Start at such humble beginnings, and maybe someday you'll make life better for more people.