Dreaming about the big things comes naturally to we humans, indeed it is one of the things that set us apart from the Neanderthals. So what happens when you redirect the boundless curiosity of an entire culture and focus it on the small things?
Gerard Burke has written a compelling piece that, in some way, answers a question I asked over two decades ago.
When I was young it used to be the news and then the weather on TV every night and then suddenly the economy was there too, the national debt, what the dollar and the sharemarkets were doing… the economy became one of the forces of nature that we all needed to know about. I remember the night it occurred to me to wonder why?
Every step of the way we make decisions about what to focus our attention on. Big things, important things, things of universal significance… or small things. Petty and hard things that will be forgotten in a moment. Children relish the opportunity to discuss the big things as respected equals. After all they may not know how to tie shoelaces and their understanding of the economy makes for poor conversation but they’ve got just as much expertise as anyone when it comes to how it might feel to be dead, or alive for that matter, what exactly love is and where the meaning of life can be found.
So should we be teaching our children, or ourselves, to stop dreaming and start paying attention? Have a read of Gerard’s piece and see what you think.
An aboriginal elder, desert man, mission raised, speaking of things with wonderful eloquence, his own words, not the words of the academy or the bureaucracy, his own feelings and experience. He tells of how when he was young, of the tribe and desert there was a bigness to life, the world was big and their love was big. He could feel this bigness, it was in the land, it was in all that he could remember of that time.
Then he was taken to the mission and was made to feel small. He was an ignorant black, backward and primitive; his life was really a small life of no consequence, out there in the desert. In the mission, sitting in the classroom he felt like nothing, a shadow. I see children at school today trying to look small, like shadows. He said he felt like a robot, following instructions, we try to be good robots, the consequences of failing to follow instructions can be terrible. But he also saw that he had entered into a small world, an enclosed world, a smallness in all things, one can imagine the more the missionaries tried to make their world sound big, with their big god and big nation and big opportunities, the more they ranted and cajoled the smaller their world must have seemed, the more petty and nasty, you could see the smallness of their spirit in their coarse words, furtive movement and staring eyes. He felt the smallness of things sap his spirit, look at the ground when talking to whitie, don’t think too much or ask for too much, become a shadow, a black cipher.
Now, as an elder he is only just beginning to rediscover the bigness of his people, his land and life, his place, the bigness of his love for all that which he had been taught to be ashamed of, the ways of his people and the land they loved as a mother. His heart which had been cramped and dull after a lifetime of living on the edge of whities smallness, their education, their instruction, their boredom and anger and pity, his heart had begun to swell again, his pride and love had begun to return, he was an elder of his people, this was his land, the bigness of the world had returned to him.
Most people I think would get this even though most of us are not black or come from such a different way of life. Most of us get this because we have been children living the big life of a child, the deep connections to home and parent and sibling, the objects and spaces of our lives, the strong feelings and the memories scorched upon the soul forever. I remember sitting at my bedroom window for hours watching the silver lined clouds skitter across the moon, the moon like a searchlight, paddocks of grass so bright at times you felt like leaping out of your window in your pyjamas and dancing over them. I sat there, on the edge of my bed with eyes watering from staring. I felt as though my heart would burst. The world seemed so big, such a grand affair, so full, full of wonder and beauty and love, so full of feeling, you could feel your soul being sucked out of your chest and you didn’t know what the hell any of it meant. We were not people of the tribe, we had no culture of the land, we felt it intensely but we couldn’t understand it.
But you were never in any real danger of succumbing to that glory for there was always school, and TV and parents reminding you that there are no free lunches. Sitting in small classrooms, in your small personal space cramped behind a desk, little disembodied facts, sarcasms and other missiles, mean and spiteful playground politics, fences you could not see over, trees not for climbing, always a bit afraid of something, afraid perhaps most of all that this smallness, this mean pettiness, this awful wasteland will become your life, this is it, shallow breaths, a cramped heart, looking over your shoulder. Robots following instructions. Fear of consequences. And then, having been raised in such a small world, of such a diminished and emaciated dreaming, we learn how to bring others down, how to make them feel smaller than us, we institutionalise this in our families and education, workplaces and politics and welfare, people come home angry, angry that they have been diminished once more, they don’t know how much more they can take before they must disappear altogether, their heart shrinking to a small black stone unable to feel for even the smallest thing.
Truly a robot then, blindly following instruction, a good soldier, a loyal servant, but this is not what we were made for, we were made for a big life in a big world, not one measured in earnings or experiences collected like stamps but in the intensity of living, of having your damned soul ripped out by the moon or your heart so filled with love it’ll burst, or just staring at the blue sky so intense it pushes everything aside and the blue just pours in. I have always felt, like this aboriginal elder that the big life demands a big space, a far horizon, a big sky, it is the majesty of this space that allows your lungs to fill, your body to grow strong and lean and your mind to be at peace. I visited a friend in an inner city apartment block. The workers had returned home and the building radiated the heat of the summer afternoon so every door was open to the corridor for some fleeting breeze. Each room I passed had the TV tuned to the same show, ‘The Price is Right’, one after the other I could follow the show just walking down the corridor. The show was a fantasy. This must be a fantasy, these small cramped spaces, this concrete sameness, this babble that comes and goes, this broken bed frame at the stairwell.