On a walk dominated by drizzle, mist and mud (so much mud), Teilo and I wound our way around the zig-zag route today. Perhaps it’s the time of year, or two years of pandemic, or having my birthday recently, but I was contemplating the notion of a big vs a small life today. When I was a young man I think I wanted a ‘big’ life, however that is characterised. Fame for its own sake, the production of a Great Work, a reputation beyond death, or any of those other markers that society places as indicators of worth. But now I don’t feel any of that drive, I long for a small life. Sometimes this is pure recluse fantasy, but more realistically it focuses on more immediate, localised, realistic achievements. The eternal swapped for the everyday.
I think i read in a Bruce Chatwin book (maybe Songlines?) that the common Western aim is to leave a mark on the world whereas other belief systems raise the profile of creating the least impact on the world. Chatwin was a problematic writer, rather typifying that white man swooping in and grabbing bits of culture for their own reputation, so that may not be an accurate belief representation anyway. It came to mind though in regard to how we deify impact, not lack of harm. To this end the much used quote “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” (which is wrongly attributed to Edmund Burke) posits action as the desirable outcome. But even from a young age, I recognised that the problem was that evil was often accomplished by people who believed they were doing the right thing. Look at Trump’s supporters storming the Capitol, ort anti-vaxxers now, and Djokovic’s father calling him “the Spartacus of the new world“. I bet he’s a fan of that quote. These are not ‘good men’, and the world would be a better place if they had done nothing. I’m with Bertrand Russell, and idleness is overly criticised.
But a small life does not mean it is an idle one, but rather that one’s vista is narrower in focus, and perhaps more detailed as a result. Perhaps it’s an age thing, that flush of youthful endeavour accompanied by a desire for self-validation is a heady mix. Older, one has cast off many of those ambitions, and also set aside the insecurities that required strangers to provide recognition. Between my (valid, busy) work at the Open University, parenthood, home life with partner, books, vinyl, and the doting affection of a labrador that looks deep into your soul every day, what need do I have of a big life? Eh, Teilo, what do you say?