On the Virtues of Feeling Small


I have spent time over the last decade learning how to take up space without apology – to speak up, to make a priority of my needs and my dreams, and to generally make my character in this life as big as those around me.

A recent trip to the Grand Canyon showed me that there is virtue and peace in recognizing myself as a small but vital part of a larger cosmos. Standing on the edge of a chasm that dwarfed me, I felt myself to be not insignificant in a grander scheme, but certainly not the be-all and end-all as I generally imagine myself to be.

Egocentrism is the practice of seeing oneself as the center of one’s own universe, and not the same as egotism or being selfish. Simply put, we see the world around us from the starting point of us. It’s normal and it sort of anchors for us a place in our surroundings.

Doing so, however, naturally makes everything about “me” and “mine” become distorted until it looks bigger than it really is, to anyone except ourselves. In general, I don’t lie awake at night worrying about the things going on in your life as much as I do about the things going on in mine: my marriage, my health, my finances. From the perspective of being the one living in my own skin, what affects me personally is bigger than events and issues, for instance, that affect my country, my society, and my planet. At least, that’s how it’s been for me.

And then I faced the south rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time. Sure, I was wowed by its indescribable and ever-changing beauty. Of course, I was drawn to clamor down trails to explore it further, and driven to photograph it in every light.

But the most striking thing for me was to realize that that feature has been changing – and leaving its trail for others to follow – for hundreds of millions of years. While I have been worrying about weight loss and my relationships with my children – while whole civilizations have risen, flourished and fallen – layers of earth have been laid down, compressed, and worn away by wind and water with relentless forward progress that doesn’t give two hoots about me and my drama.

I sat on the sun-warmed rocks on the edge and let a feeling of “everything is fine” settle down into my bones. Even the tragedies and the missteps – they had their place, or at least could be worked into the finished piece that was my life. And my life was part of a larger tapestry that was always meant to occupy its particular spot – not insignificant, but certainly not the focal point of the whole masterpiece.

It has also helped me to remember to stay in my own lane, and focus on my own tasks – I can trust that everyone and everything else is proceeding down their own evolutionary highway without the need for my constant supervision and critique. My fussing over it all hasn’t been productive at all.

Even better, I have found since I returned home that this sensation of being right where I am supposed to be is easy to recapture and experience again. All I have to do is go outside and let the sounds and smells of nature become larger than those that are man-made. Perhaps I catch a glimpse of a squirrel running up a tree that has lived its whole life and never thought about my bank account, or a bird soaring overhead that sees life from a much higher perspective, and doesn’t lose sleep thinking about the midterm elections.

In a strange paradox, feeling smaller has also given me an unshakable belief in my own perfect rightness in life. I’m supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be exactly what I am. And I will progress in my own time and on my own path just as I should. And that is more beautiful than even the seen beauty of the Grand Canyon.