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Wrestling with the Big and the Small

The big and the small. The inside and the outside. All twisted and magnificently confused. This is 2020. 

One night a few weeks ago, I could not fall asleep. I was tossing and turning because we had decided on takeout for dinner. The magnitude of the decision had completely devastated me. 

Like so many other families, we had not eaten outside of our home in many weeks because of quarantine. Every meal, every single day, for months, was prepared in our kitchen, cleaned up in our kitchen. Every. Single. Family. Meal. 

It was time for takeout. 

Once the decision had been taken, the excitement followed. We were going to get takeout! I could not contain my enthusiasm. I ordered the food over the phone and I ordered way too much. When I arrived at the restaurant, my excitement had become manic and I was ready to add 50 other items to my bag. By the time I was done, I had racked up a bill of C$98 (US$72). 

I balked at the cost. We had not spent that kind of money since the pandemic started. Who spends $98 on takeout when the economy is on the edge of collapse? It felt like a dangerous mistake to be making, but then again . . . it was takeout. 

So I tossed my worries aside and bounced out of the shop with our meal in a brown paper bag. I drove home with the food sitting happily in the passenger seat, tempting me with its sweet aromas. I was dying to nibble (truth is, I eventually did). I thought of the dishes that would not need to be washed. The preparation efforts that would not have to be made. The tastes that would be different from the ones we knew how to create. I walked through the front door of our house buoyantly: “I have takeout!” 

We opened up each container carefully and lay them out on the table. One dish after another, peeled open with loving appreciation. And then we feasted together, all of us excited about this marvelous new experience that would have seemed so trivial only a few weeks earlier. We ate and talked and ate some more. We drank wine and clinked our glasses (our son had juice). We listened to soft music and felt the gentle ambiance take hold of us.

But later, when I went to bed, the panic set in. I could not fall asleep. Instead, I tossed and turned. The food was so oily and sweet. They must have doused it with sugar and deep fried the bulk of it. I was thirsty. What kind of ingredients did they use to make it taste like that? Nothing good. I tossed some more. And it cost $98. I couldn’t rest. The more I thought about it, the more upset I became. What had I done? I’d paid $98 for food that was bad for me, bad for my family, that wasn’t nearly as good as I was dreaming it should be. What a disaster! How could I have done that to myself? To our budget? To all of us?

Eventually I had to get up out of bed to pace. In my mind, the takeout had become a tragedy that should never have happened. Irreparable damage on every front. 

I eventually went to the living room couch and turned on the TV. Created a background hum for myself in the hopes that my anxiety levels would settle down. I pretended to watch, but I was really watching myself, watching the palpitations, the judgments, the disappointment. Until finally, I felt myself become quiet again. And then I understood what was going on.

When the world seems too big, everything falls out of proportion. The big becomes tiny and the tiny becomes insurmountable. The virus is actually microscopically small. A decision about takeout becomes life threatening. In a time like this, it feels almost impossible to see straight.

2020 has not been easy (and we are only halfway done!). Australia was on fire in January (remember that?). George Floyd was murdered in May. In between, the world was quarantined and the economy has been teetering toward collapse.

There are so many big problems, so many ways in which our world is demanding our attention, our participation, our presence. It is overwhelming. I want to protest against racism, to build a better world for my son, to participate in climate solutions, to make sure I don’t infect anyone with a virus I may be carrying, to take care of the elderly and to make sure they have what they need. 

I also want to make meals for my family. And do my actual job (the one I am paid for). And maybe, from time to time, splurge on takeout. It’s a lot to hold all at once.

The big has become small and the small has become cataclysmic. And in the midst of it all, I have to find my place. My balance. We all do. Or we will end up tossing and turning all night over nothing at all.

So here is my solution (for today): sometimes, we need to let the small have its place. We cannot always take in all the bigness of the world. We have to consider the bigness, we have to participate and reflect on it all, but sometimes we also have to let the bigness of the world go. We have to (as cliché as this may sound) smell the flowers, enjoy a meal, take a slow walk without rushing anywhere along the way. We need—to quote some of the earliest Buddhist materials—to watch our breath, that which is so small as to be imperceptible. We need to focus on the small and give it the respect it deserves if we ever hope to be able to manage some of the big. 

It is the oldest teaching in the world, and yet somehow it is the one teaching I forget the most. Sometimes, we have to turn off the news, put away the big stories, put down the weight of the world, and focus on something small. Because if we don’t, we will miss everything.

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