We learn about things that are bigger than ourselves in layers, and we accomplish tasks that are bigger than ourselves one step at a time.
In college, this knowledge came as a revelation to me. Instead of learning, memorizing and standing atop a field of knowledge, knowledge was something that was created in pieces. Knowledge came to be about process.
In graduate school, I again came to relish the mystery of the analytic process through the activities of conversation analysis and discourse analysis. Over and again, I began with a small piece of data, like a conversation or a snippet of video, and watched it come to life through rounds of observation. Something that began as a digestible piece that wouldn’t necessarily attract attention became a multilayered journey into all of the pieces that comprise the situated social actions we make every day.
As a parent, I learned almost immediately that parenthood was bigger than me. I learned that I couldn’t be, do or know it all, and I learned that the choices and priorities I made dramatically governed the shape of my family. I learned that I could not be perfect in anyone’s eyes, and I could never measure up to every standard by which I was being measured. I learned that I was ultimately responsible for something I valued more than I had imagined possible, and that I ultimately had to accept and embrace my unique approach to the task. I could only strive to be a parent in the ways in which I was capable, and I could never fit anyone else’s vision. I learned that my shortcomings had to be a bridge of understanding to other parents, who also found themselves unequal to the task at their hands.
In my professional life, I’ve learned to relish the possibilities and opportunities that teamwork can bring. As a team we can achieve far more and greater things than we could ever achieve as individuals, and that which we can accomplish can be an inspiration. As a manager the most I could wish for is a team that is inspired by process and by potential, who can love the work and love the product of that work.
Ultimately, that’s what I wish for all things that are bigger than myself. Inspiration, pride, a love of the journey and the process- to love life and be surrounded by others who love life, in all its complications, challenges, ups and downs.
But all of this talk of inspiration neglects the other side of things that are bigger than us. When we make choices of where to focus our time and energy, other elements are always neglected. As a parent, I have to remind myself that I may not be a go-to mom at bake sale time, but I have other qualities to offer my kids. Even as we work to get things done there is always an undercurrent of things not getting done. And there are times when the journey ahead is more daunting than inspiring. There are the moments when all of the work we’ve accomplished becomes undone before our eyes. There are the toddlers behind us as we clean, some more and some less metaphorical, dumping toys and laughing. And there are the mountains ahead that seem to be too big to climb.
There is a TED talk that has been making the rounds lately about emotional hygiene. In it, the speaker talks about how we handle failure and disappointments. We all encounter failures and disappointments, small and large, every day. We conquer our to-do lists one day, only to see them build back up the next day. Sometimes our hard work is unrecognized. Sometimes our efforts are not enough. It’s one thing to love process, but what do we do when the process can’t fit the task ahead? How do we handle ambiguity? To Ignore these challenges is to undercut the complicated texture of life.
I believe that part of embracing life is to embrace the mess; to embrace that which is bigger than ourselves; to keep feeling around the darkness until we find our way; to have faith that there is a path through the darkness, to continually double back to our rocks; to embrace the challenges and embrace our core that guides us through them; to recognize the downs and the ups, and to know where within ourselves to find the strength to persevere. These moments, these challenges allow us to be hear, see and do that which is much grander than what we could see, hear achieve alone or in any immediate sense. These are the elements that give depth to our lives. These are the challenges that define our lives and make life worth living.