The Power of Living Small
“You’re not a moron. You’re only a case of arrested development,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises. Arrested development: a term coined for the Lost Generation in the 1920s now liberally applied to my generation, the Millennials. To be fair, it fits. Like so many artists in Hemmingway’s day, my peers and I find ourselves craving a kind of freedom to address taboo issues in the world and creatively help resolve them, but are thwarted by mainstream society’s choosing to turn blind eyes to those issues or its drive to capitalize on them. The air Hemingway breathed as he crafted his seminal novel was thick with angst and disillusionment after war. He and his contemporaries witnessed atrocities, been indelibly marked by their frontline experiences, but the world eagerly swept the aftermath under the rug. Disillusionment is another buzzword attributed to my peers. War, corrupt governments, tanked economies, disconnects within the Church, society’s false promises, and general apathy regarding ongoing tragedy in the news are but a few common threads. Much of the angst characteristic of both generations, I believe, is born from the tension between wanting to make our world a better place, cliché as that sounds, and the financial, political, and cultural inhibitors in place to fulfilling that desire. So many of us want to do and be more, sensing a higher calling to enact the good Jesus displayed for us, but are consumed with the overwhelming task of just getting by.
That tension between desire and inability sometimes strains my self-esteem. Like Hemmingway’s character Cohn, I sometimes feel like a moron, like I’ve made some life-altering mistake or missed a divine appointment that landed me in my current position of juggling three part-time jobs between which I snatch a few hours of sleep in my childhood bedroom. I didn’t work my tail off for a college degree to brew coffee and scrub toilets (not that there’s anything undignified or unimportant about that work), unable to afford anything more than enough gas to drive me between shifts. At the end of a work day, there isn’t time or energy enough for personal care let alone social justice campaigns or mission projects. This isn’t a bad life, just a very small one, smaller than what I trained and worked for – smaller than what I believed God had in mind. The lines between complacency and contentment, ungratefulness and needing room to grow blur. It does often feel as though my development as a person – spiritually, intellectually, relationally, and professionally – is arrested under a “without bail” sentence. I wonder if Jesus ever felt the same.
We know Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, but we don’t know the extent of internal conflict he felt between those qualities. How did his divine desires have to yield to
his earthly circumstances on a day to day basis?
Here is the originator of the universe, designer of life itself, painter of sunrise, crafter of every leaf on every tree, bound by mortal flesh. Did the knowledge of his omnipresence ever vex him? Did he crave different scenery than the sand of Israel, knowing what wonders of creation waited elsewhere? As far as we know, Jesus only traveled about 21, 525 miles during his 33-year mortal life. That includes return trips and the 400 miles between Egypt and Nazareth when he was a tot on the run from King Herod. Today we can hop a plane and fly that distance in a matter of hours. Potential for global impact has never been higher in terms of how connected we are via technology. But who has had a greater impact on this world than Jesus? Who left a deeper impression on everything from art to politics, science to language? And he did it by living what most would consider a small life.
A small life certainly doesn’t equate a meaningless one. Jesus knew his purpose: to make God famous. By concentrating on accomplishing his purpose in his immediate surroundings, he maximized the ripple effect of his life. Yes, Jesus commanded the attention of crowds, but he personally discipled only twelve men. Jesus revolutionized an entire nation’s code of law and religious system, but did so household by household. He performed miracle after miracle, but tailored each message to the individual touched. What if I did the same? What would it look like for me to leverage this time and place for God’s glory like Jesus did?
Since I can remember, I’ve wanted to travel. There’s so much to learn, discover, and experience in foreign surroundings. Travel shapes you, reveals you in ways staying put simply can’t. It opens you to God’s personality in ways you can’t anticipate and challenges your perception of how he moves among us. That’s my vision of living a big life – immersing myself in the God-given possibilities of unfamiliar surroundings and allowing him to mold me in each adventure. Overseas travel still tops my dream list, but the older I get the more sway the idea of small life holds. For several years my closest friends have joked about us building a compound like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, minus the scare tactics and total isolation, of course. We would break bread together, share resources, teach one another’s children, and hold one another accountable in our faith. What great impact we would have on each other for the good! My love for these people runs deep and there is nobody I’d rather live side by side with, but living in such a tight, integrated system where people rely on you doesn’t leave big gaps for jetting off the continent. Though we talk of communal living mostly in jest, it does make me wonder if abandoning the dream of a big life in favor of a small one is worth it.
So I sweep my gaze around the humble radius of my life with a sigh and think God doesn’t keep us where he doesn’t want us. There is a mission here. There are lessons I’m supposed to learn now. This is where Jesus sent me as an ambassador to make him known and others loved. Maybe I’m not a prisoner of my own choices, but rather the recipient of divine training. Quite possibly, God intends this arrested development as preparation for something bigger. Maybe all the angst and disillusionment of my generation is setting up the next to achieve our desires for bettering the world. Who but God can know? Instead of dwelling on missed opportunities to live the big life I dream of, I will pray for renewed purpose in the small life I have. It may be more significant than I realize.