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THE WAY OF THE SMALL
why less is truly more
By Michael Gellert
NICOLAS-HAYS, INC.Copyright © 2008 Michael Gellert
All rights reserved.
A SMALL TALE
There once was a great king who died and went to the gate of heaven. He was expecting to see large pearly gates and St. Peter sitting on a throne. Instead he found Peter standing in front of a plain, small doorway.
"May I come in?" he asked the saint.
"Let's see," Peter said, looking over his notes. "It is true," he began, "that you were a great king with a great kingdom. Yes, you had many wives and children and much wealth, and made many important changes in the world. But you were larger than life. You yourself have become so identified with your crown of greatness that you would not know who you are without it. I'm afraid you won't fit in here. This place is small. You would not know how to live here. I'm sorry, you can't come in."
The king, shocked and dismayed, said, "What must I do to get in? I have nowhere to go."
"You do have some options," Peter said. "What I would suggest is that you go back to earth and learn to be small."
The king thought this over and, though not happy about it, decided it was acceptable. So Peter arranged for him to go back.
In his next life, the king purposely chose a path that was not so big. He returned to the kingdom and became a healer to the poor folk. He studied hard and became very knowledgeable and skilled. And he traveled far and wide healing many sick people. As he was much in demand, he did not have time to have a family, but this suited him fine—some of the kindred souls he met on his journeys became like family. Finally he reached old age, died, and once again found himself facing St. Peter at the gate of heaven.
He said to Peter, "I have lived a small life, helping others and sacrificing my own comfort. Can I now enter heaven?"
"Hmmm," St. Peter said, examining his revised notes. "I see that indeed you chose a smaller life, doing much good serving others. But is it not true that you were also secretly very proud of this, feeling like you were on a heavenly mission and doing this mostly for your own salvation?"
"Well," the healer-king said, "what's wrong with that?"
"Nothing," Peter said, "but it's not small."
Upon hearing this the healer-king became furious, and started shouting obscenities at the old saint.
"That's not small either," Peter said.
"Well, what must I do!?" the healer-king asked in exasperation.
"Try again," Peter said.
So the healer-king went back to earth, choosing this time a simple life as a shoemaker in a village at the outer edge of the kingdom. He married a village girl, raised a couple of children, and lived in a small cottage with his shoe shop attached. As the years went by he grew into a serene happiness, enjoying his family, his work, his neighbors. At the end of each day he loved to come into the living room of his home and spend the evenings with his family sharing stories in front of the fireplace. He grew to be very old in this life, surviving his wife and even his children. And although he was lonely, he still enjoyed his days, making shoes and sitting by the fireplace at night in contemplative reverie, as old men like to do.
Finally the old shoemaker died and was once again standing face to face with St. Peter at the gate of heaven.
"You know," he said before Peter could utter a word, "that was so good, you could send me back one more time."
St. Peter smiled. "Come in," he said.
WE ARE THE WAY OF THE SMALL
They asked Rabbi Aaron of Karlin what he had learned from his teacher; the Great Maggid. "Nothing at all" he said. And when they pressed him to explain what he meant by that, he added: "The nothing-at-all is what I learned. I learned the meaning of nothingness. I learned that I am nothing at all, and that I Am, notwithstanding."
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF OUR INSIGNIFICANCE
The universe is a vast, mysterious place. Clearly, we are very small in it, and, even with the advances of modern science, very limited in what we understand about it. And yet, in spite of this—or maybe because of it—we spend much time convincing ourselves and each other that we are anything but small and limited. Unlike other creatures, we are unusually preoccupied with our self-importance. How easily we get wounded or angry, for example, when someone attacks our self-image. Or how desperately we seek to assure some permanence from our life endeavors; something that lasts beyond us. Though we may profess one belief or another about an afterlife, we really don't know what will become of us. Our smallness is a perennial source of anguish, a constant reminder of our insignificance in the cosmic scheme of things. However, if we could only see that our smallness is what makes us great, perhaps we wouldn't need to pretend to be great by our inflation or grandiosity. Our significance would be discovered in the fleeting quality of life, not beyond it.
Some years ago I had an experience that shed some light on this matter, showing how an appreciation of our smallness helps us live in a truly meaningful way. While visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Washington, D.C., I went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Although I had visited other Holocaust museums in the world, this was unlike any other exhibit, of any kind, that I had ever seen.
As you approach the museum, you are struck by the architecture that is modern and elegant but reminiscent of concentration camp imagery: a guard tower hovering overhead, sentry boxes lining the roof, solid window panes you cannot see through. Heavy steel trusses above the Hall of Witness through which you enter the museum prepare your imagination to confront the cold hard facts of one of history's darkest episodes. The sculptures are stark, and the building's walls and windows impress upon you the sensation that you are in a prison.
The emaciated survivors and open mass graves of naked, starved, dead bodies are portrayed without apology in haunting black-and-white photographs taken by the American liberation forces. From this end point you then go back to the very beginning, to see how it all began. You learn about the historical and cultural soil in which the seeds of Nazism grew. As you progress to Hitler's emergence on the scene and his takeover of Germany, you study the edicts that step-by-step built up a totalitarian state, first marginalizing and then criminalizing the Jews, Gypsies, and other groups of which German society needed to be "cleansed."
And then comes the war, with its systematic destruction of the Jews. You are flooded with news clippings, photographs, and audio and film recordings that show how the rich diversity of European Jewish family life was slowly decimated. A palpable feeling of depression—or is it oppression?—overcomes you from the pictures of some of the 400 ghettos in which they were interned. The barbed-wire fences, deteriorated, wintery surroundings, and long faces tell you of the subhuman conditions they lived in.
Now you come to the hundreds of forced-labor and concentration camps, with their rows and rows of barracks and the medical experiments on prisoners—starvation, freezing, and high-altitude experiments. Displays of experimental rooms, equipment, and a dissecting table send chills down your spine, especially when you are informed that children were subjects, too.
At last, you encounter the macabre reality of the "final solution"—the extermination camps. You begin with the mass-murder operations of the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units). You then learn about and see photographs of the four gas chambers at Auschwitz and the ovens used to burn the bodies. A scale model of Auschwitz's Crematorium II, with its tall, sturdy chimney, makes you reflect upon the skillful but wicked minds who designed this horror.
You walk by a small mountain of shoes from Jews who disappeared. You wonder, whose child did that little shoe over there belong to? You walk through a cattle car used in Poland during the war. You can't help but wonder: if not for the grace of God, you could have been in one of those cattle cars that freighted thousands—entire families together, but more often broken apart—to their deaths every day, indeed, like cattle.
The personal survivor accounts that are made available to you on audio assault your sensibilities and deliver a devastating blow to your wish to believe in the innate goodness of the human soul. By showing humanity's dark side, this museum provides a valuable service: it is both a reminder and a warning.
After eight hours on my feet, I not only felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me, but the spirit, too. The next day I was in no mood to go to another museum. I had been crushed by the weight of the exhibit, as if a truck had run over me. Naturally, I pondered such universal questions as, "What could be the purpose of such profound suffering?" and, "How could God allow it?" But these were not foremost in my mind. As important as they are, these questions seemed to be an escape from the raw reality of the suffering itself; they sought a way to cope with the suffering by framing it in a larger, religious context. I was gripped by the suffering and compelled to stay with it on its own terms, helpless and overwhelmed as this made me feel.
* * *
Two days after the Holocaust excursion, I still wasn't particularly motivated, but decided to go to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The museum was very crowded, and I found the long lines frustrating. I noticed an exhibit in a small movie theater that had no line. I was relieved to find that I was the only one there and sat down. As the lights dimmed, the title came on the screen: "POWERS OFTEN. A FILM DEALING WITH THE RELATIVE SIZE OF THINGS IN THE UNIVERSE AND THE EFFECT OF ADDING ANOTHER ZERO." The opening scene is a young couple having a picnic, with carnival music playing in the background. An announcer's voice comes on:
The picnic near the lakeside in Chicago is the start of a lazy afternoon early one October. We begin with a scene one meter wide which we view from just one meter away. Now every ten seconds we will look from ten times farther away and our field of view will be ten times wider.
The camera begins to zoom out and upwards, giving the impression that we are looking down from an ascending rocket. In a few moments we cannot see the couple at all—only their blanket. Soon we see Chicago's Lake Shore Drive and Marina, the blanket barely a speck. As the camera continues, Lake Michigan comes into view, and then the entire Earth. Soon we see the moon orbiting the Earth, before passing the orbital paths of Venus, Mars, and Mercury. Then comes our glowing sun, followed by the wide orbital paths of the massive outer planets and Pluto.
As I watched our solar system merge indistinguishably with the myriad of stars in our galaxy, I could feel a strange nervousness in my heart, as if I were really "out there" on a voyage in outer space. "Good God!," I thought. "This is really far!"
As we traverse and exit our Milky Way galaxy, with its ten billion trillion stars and its glowing gas, it appears as a great flat spiral, like a hurricane photographed from a satellite. Its bright light dissipates into white clouds fanning out. It is awesome.
Passing the Clouds of Magellan and the big Virgo cluster of galaxies, our galaxy now looks small. Soon entire galaxies appear as single points of light. Reaching 100 million light years from the Earth, our voyage pauses briefly as we remain stationary in midspace. Galaxies are like dust in this rather empty, lonely scene. This emptiness, our announcer tells us, is what most of space normally looks like, the richness of our own neighborhood being the exception.
The feeling of nervousness has made way for what I can describe only as a "panic of the imagination." "What would happen," I asked myself, "if we didn't turn around as promised by the announcer? This universe is so immense that I'd never find my way back!" I could feel my heart sink as another thought forced its way into my mind. "Oh my God," I said to myself. "The Holocaust doesn't mean anything out here." This thought was not irrational. Think about it: From this vantage point in outer space, the Holocaust—indeed, all of human history, all of life on Earth, the Earth itself—is not even a blip on the screen. Whether or not the cries of six million reached God's heaven we can only guess, but for sure they didn't reach these heavens, barren and endlessly receding as they are. I had always known intellectually that the infinitude of the universe and the eternity of time made everything seem like nothing, and that the finitude of our planet and human species was as unavoidable as the finitude of our individual lives, but at this moment I knew it with a crisp, sensory certainty. Everything is nothing.
The return home is a sped-up version of the course we took to get here, taking but a fraction of the time (less than a minute). The announcer informs us that we will now go into the nucleus and proton of a carbon atom beneath the skin on the hand of the sleeping man at the picnic.
We slow down one meter from the picnic scene. We are told that we will reduce the distance to our destination 90 percent every ten seconds, each step much smaller than the one before. The structure of the skin becomes visible close-up. We enter the skin, crossing its layers into a tiny blood vessel. We encounter red and white blood cells. Crossing a white cell's porous wall, we penetrate its nucleus. Soon we see the coils of the DNA double helix molecule that contains the genetic code. Sizes are now measured in angstroms and nanometers.
Finally we reach the atomic scale, where we encounter the building blocks of DNA and focus on a carbon atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms. We cross through the shimmering, outer electron shell of the carbon atom to enter its center. Then we traverse a vast space of nothingness. At last, we arrive at the nucleus of the carbon atom. A structure of six protons and six neutrons, it is so massive and yet so small. We zoom in on a single proton.
Conceding that we have reached the edge of present scientific understanding, our announcer questions if what lies beyond is the realm of quarks. Our journey concluded, we are left with the striking realization of how immense the universe is on both macrocosmic and microcosmic levels.
* * *
The combination of the Holocaust museum and this short but powerful film stunned me: the intensely human, personal dimension of the museum and the impersonal dimension of the film met like two hands clapping loudly. Perhaps these were the two hands of God, one personal and the other impersonal, one connected to the moral dimension of good and evil and the other beyond it. The dilemma this duality raises, however, has as much to do with us as with God, since the one thing that is certain is that we have to bridge these two dimensions. How do we live in a humanly meaningful and moral way while at the same time recognizing our utter insignificance in this vast universe? This huge and thorny problem, a preoccupation of many religious and philosophical thinkers, came alive for me that day, and since then I have had a chance to reflect on it from the viewpoint of the way of the small.
To begin, the way of the small shows what is truly significant, or at least it puts our human significance on a level playing field with our cosmic insignificance. It is precisely because human life is such a rarity in this vast and seemingly lifeless universe that it is so significant. Whether or not you believe in God, life on Earth is a miracle. The statistical chances against its emergence are as vast as the cosmos. From a cosmic standpoint, life itself is the way of the small, as is the fact that it evolved on an infinitesimally little planet spinning around an infinitesimally small star at the edge of an infinitesimal galaxy in the middle of nowhere. What a precious anomaly and exception to the cosmic rule!
If the way of the small casts a different light upon my museum visits, as just described, what light in return do the visits shed upon the way of the small? The exhibits I saw tell us that our humanity and inhumanity take place in an extremely small slice of the cosmos. This slice is between the macrocosmic and the microcosmic, between that infinite realm "out there" and that infinitesimal realm "in there." Events like the picnic in Chicago and the Holocaust both happen in this small slice; they have no meaning "out there" beyond the Milky Way and "in there" at the atomic level. To embrace the way of the small in this context does not mean to be as small as possible, for as we see, the smallness of the microcosmic is actually quite immense and ungraspable. Embracing smallness here means inhabiting the smallness that is ours as fully as possible. It means fully inhabiting the small slice of the cosmos we live in. This is where all meaning and morality exist. This alone is the human dimension.
Excerpted from THE WAY OF THE SMALL by Michael Gellert. Copyright © 2008 Michael Gellert. Excerpted by permission of NICOLAS-HAYS, INC..
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