THE BLOG
09/25/2010 09:59 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Our Thoughts Are Too Small

Our thoughts are too small. And as a result, our actions are too small. Most of us have our typical thoughts, imaginations, and decisions produced and constrained in unnecessary ways by our past and present circumstances. We lower our heads and take only little steps. We are meant to fly yet sit transfixed in tiny cages of our own creation.

An old friend of mine many years ago was a notable modern architect. Trained at Harvard, Berlin, and the Bauhaus, his homes had been pictured in books of innovative modern design. But he told me that most modern architects he knew had far too small a worldview to inspire great design. He had badgered his Chinese wife for years to go with him on a tour of European churches and cathedrals. She had resisted, because of some unfortunate childhood contacts with missionaries in her homeland. She wanted nothing to do with Christendom. But he persisted. He finally convinced her that during a sweep of centuries when builders created out of a worldview much bigger than themselves, astonishing things had resulted, things of a magnitude that needed to be experienced in person to be understood. Even a downtrodden peasant could have a grand thought or elevated feeling in the proximity of such a magnificent work of art.

How big is your worldview? Do you draw on vast resources for your actions, or are you like the many who live in a world the size of a postage stamp? Do you exist and go about your daily business within a small fenced-in area created largely by others, and reinforced by your own habitual thoughts and decisions over time? Or is the broader world in some way your stage? Are you comfortable with new and different possibility that lies beyond the edge of your existential yard?

In the nineteenth century, America benefited from several philosophers, poets, and novelists who refused to think small. Ralph Waldo Emerson inspired his compatriots to realize their own individual uniqueness, and to see this country as a proper arena for adventures in personal greatness. Those among his readers whose ancestors were not native to this land had escaped the glories and bonds of older cultures where their destinies might have been carved in stone. Here, in this new land, by contrast almost anything might be possible.

We've somehow lost that sense, and sensibility.

In the Bible, the book of Proverbs says that without a vision, people perish. What's your vision for your life? How big is it, or how small?

This morning, I was reading one of John Updike's lectures, a reflection on the poet Walt Whitman. He begins in his first minute by saying:

"Whitman wrenched from American poetry forever the possibility of its being a mere craft, and thrust upon it the duty to be celebration and prophecy - to be, no less, a verbal appropriation of the universe."

But what is American poetry now? Forever is a very long time. Many of our poets have joined the rest of us in utterly prosaic living. The mundane has eclipsed the metaphysical and impoverished our spirits as a result.

Emerson and Whitman, along with many of their peers, captured a way of thinking that has in it great power. Your life can be "a celebration and a prophecy" and in its own way an "appropriation of the universe." Or it can be a stray grain of sand sitting inert on a vast beach. It's in the end up to you.

None of us was born to be a failure, a mediocrity, or a drudge. We were all born for our proper form of success. Whether you trace that to the rigors of the evolutionary process alone, or view it from a higher vantage point, the fact as seen by Emerson, Whitman, and many wise others, is that we're here for successful adventures in the world.

Let me quote Emerson, from his essay "Nature":

"We are taught by great actions that the universe is the property of every individual in it. Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate. It is his, if he will. He may divest himself of it; he may creep into a corner, and abdicate his kingdom, as most men do, but he is entitled to the world by his constitution. In proportion to the energy of his thought and will, he takes up the world into himself."

The larger world around us should not be viewed as a huge, daunting obstacle to big dreams, but rather as a resource of immense richness, awaiting only our courage and bold action.

The resistance we face, and the difficulties we suffer, can just further prepare us for the next victory in our journey. It's our choice as to how we respond.

The best people I know are individuals who do not allow themselves to be limited or unnaturally constrained by a job description, or by other people's expectations. They seek to be their best and do their best in whatever role they play. They think big, aim high, and act with a natural and free creativity. They lift up others around them. And they often redefine whatever it is that they're doing, making it bigger and more significant than it otherwise would be. They are transformative influences wherever they go.

Whether you stock the produce section of a grocery store, work in retail, manage an office, or run a global enterprise, your thoughts create the limits of your world. Wittgenstein said it before I did. And others beat him to it by over two thousand years.

So why not think big and live accordingly, within the scope of your talents, with the real resources available to you, and fueled by the most expansive projection of your dreams? I can see Emerson and Whitman cheering you on.