Every candle casts a light

aka “Do less, so that you can do more.”

If you read my last blog entry you’ll know that I’ve been going through something of a crisis recently. It’s been such an ongoing thing that I’ve decided to call it a mid-life crisis. I am in fact 54 this year, so I’m a bit overdue for one.

One of the things that has been afflicting me recently has been the knowledge that I will probably now never amount to anything. I’d better unpack that a little, so bear with me if I seem to be meandering.

You and I have been brought up on books, TV shows and movies where there is a hero. The hero, reluctant or not, is called upon to save the world. They meet various mentors. They refine themselves through various struggles. They meet their greatest challenge, face their foe and defeat them, and in the process they save the nation/world/galaxy and everyone in it.

People who model their understanding of the world on stories – ie, most people, but storytellers most of all – have therefore been primed to see their lives as a hero’s journey. I remember studying Dante’s Divine Comedy and learning that in Dante’s day, the great mass of people were considered so indistinguishable from each other that they didn’t even qualify for real Hell. In order to have an afterlife at all, you had to have achieved fame, or infamy. If you hadn’t done anything notable in your life, you literally didn’t matter even to God.

Elitist claptrap, right? But IDK. I had internalized the idea that everyone was the hero of their own story, and to me that meant that if I was a hero, I had to do something to justify my existence. In a dim and not very well thought out way, that meant I was responsible for the state of the world. Even though I had never voted conservative, I was responsible for the xenophobia and corruption of the government and the fact that my children were having things harder than I was at that age. Even though I was not even in America, I was somehow responsible for everything Trump was doing. Or I was responsible for saving everyone from it.

But that turned out to be more of a burden than I could carry. I ran into the wall of my own powerlessness and broke my nose on it. I’m not a bestselling author (except in certain small Amazon categories.) I can’t save the world. I don’t even know where I would start.

Perhaps it’s a little late in my life to be running into the knowledge that I’m only a very little person and there’s not a lot I can do, but I find myself without a story-framework for a life that is not the life of a hero. What is the point? I have been thinking. What’s the point of being alive at all if I can’t stop Trump, stop Brexit, make everyone be decent to each other? If I make no difference, what is the point?

Fast forward to this morning, and I was in church. Around the nave altar were four lit candles, and another four around the high altar. It occurred to me that a candle-flame is only a very little light, but it’s still a very beautiful thing. It may not be enough light on its own to illuminate a great big, dark, vaulted place like the church, but it will still glimmer from the brass and the gold leaf. Even if no candle-flame is larger than any of the others, each makes a light and the sum total of that light is greater than it would be if that single candle was not there.  With eight, twelve, twenty, a hundred candles, you have enough light to see, to read, to make a difference.

The loss of even one diminishes the whole, but no one candle is expected to light the whole room all by itself.

Recently I have found a lot of comfort in this saying from Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

Time for another diversion. I’ve recently discovered that I actually enjoy exercise. Why has it taken me this long to find that out? Because for most of my life, I’ve been trying to do too much. I’ve gone to the gym or the pool and pushed myself to do as much as I possibly could, and then I’ve gone home feeling sick from over-exertion and got up the next morning so achy it took me a week to recover. After which I avoided going back for several years, certain that endorphins were a myth, or at least a thing that happened to other people, not to me.

Recently, however, I learned to start by doing less. I swam until I didn’t want to swim any more, then I went home and took anti-inflammatory painkillers so I didn’t stiffen up. Next time, I added two more lengths. Then again, building it up gradually so I never exhausted myself. In this way, I ended up doing less swimming per session than I had when I swam to exhaustion, but because I now was going often, I was doing way more swimming as a regular component of my lifestyle.

I call this the ‘do less in order to do more’ principle. If I do less, to the point where I can manage to do this thing on a regular basis, I am actually doing a lot more of it than I would be if I was intending to do an enormous amount of it, intimidating myself by the prospect, and eventually failing to do anything.

If I write 200 words a day, I am writing more than if I aim to write 2000 a day, fail, feel terrible about failing, and then avoid writing altogether for months.

And if I do something good to help the world – if, for example, I give money or time to a food bank, canvass for a decent political party, volunteer to help local LGBT kids or whatever I feel I can do on a regular, long term basis – that is better than feeling helpless to make everything better and doing nothing as a result.

I find this thought comforting. It is of more worth to the world for me to do the small things that I can do than it is for me to feel so overwhelmed and hopeless that I do nothing at all. Therefore I shall continue to do things.

(And if I do find the great amulet of doom, the casting of which into a fire will split open the dimensions and catapult us all into the good timeline, I’ll take it as far as I can. It may not be all the way.)

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