When I was in my early twenties, flying back and forth between home in New York and college in Minnesota, the moment on the plane that terrified me most had nothing to do with take-off or rising to forty-thousand feet or landing. No, what gave me anxiety was that broad view of New York City, eight million people packed into three hundred square miles, that proved to me just how small I was. In the vast world I was a speck. An “insignificant number,” my chemistry teacher taught us, was like the weight of ashes in an airplane ash tray (back in the days when there was such a thing) compared to the weight of an airplane. I was an insignificant number, and it shook my foundation.
At the time I was transitioning from Sleepy Hollow High School, where I was the editor of the literary journal and valedictorian and generally a big fish in a little pond to Carleton College, where my fellow students had done calculus in seventh grade, started businesses, and performed at Carnegie Hall. I remained as good a student as I’d always been—I studied hard, I got good grades—but in hindsight I failed miserably at Carleton, meaning I was so busy trying to maintain my big fish status that I neglected to experience the full breadth and joy of a fine liberal arts education. That large pond threatened my hard-earned identity.
When graduation dumped me into the really big pond (not New York City but a world that includes it), I finally found some peace with my smallness. Everybody is small—no need to fight it. Ironically, the less I’ve needed to prove my worth, the wider the ripples. Do you remember Swimmy from Leo Lionni’s picture book? The little fish was a master community organizer who arranged his school into such a big presence, they scared away the shark. I’ve enjoyed swimming with the small guys.
These days, however, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that being a fish, big or small, is an illusion. What if we’re all really the pond? The fish-form I inhabit now is temporary—at death I’ll return to water and silt—so perhaps it’s not essentially who I am.
This is the possibility I dip into when I pray. In silence, in release, we can practice being just the pond. At times I find this even more terrifying than seeing New York City from above—Who am I in this vastness?! But at others times I taste a selfless self, one awash with love, and am deeply grateful.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
October 8, 2016: Saturday Introductory Workshop at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.
Second Fridays; 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions, Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.
October 14: Holy Play
November 11: Place
December 9: Symbols & Metaphors