A Small Life

A Small Life January 7, 2013

I used to say that I wanted a small life.  A family, good work, and good friends – a humble list.

There are, of course, many problems with this formulation.  First, no life is smaller or bigger than any other.  In one sense, George Washington’s life ended just the way yours and mine will – in the ground, with a few people’s lives dramatically changed by the loss.  In another sense, his life ended just the way yours and mine will – eternally real, equally small and weighty beyond understanding before our maker.

The second problem with claiming I wanted a small life was the assumption that I was destined for a big life – a life that would be thrust upon me because of my innate wonderfulness and superior education, and in spite of my desire for a humble existence.  Imagine how grotesque the claim would sound to a single mother trying to scrape together the money to get her kid piano lessons.  Finally, claiming that I wanted a small life protected me from humiliation should the big life made inevitable by my brilliance not come to pass.

Today, though, I realized for the first time that my life is in fact going to be small.  I’m closing in on fifty, and what I am is a decent but not exceptional homeschooler.  I’m a decent but deeply flawed wife.  I teach Sunday School, try to be a good friend, sister, and daughter.  I write a mediocre blog when I’m not more interested in watching all three seasons of Treme over the course of a week, and I start but never follow through on many different spiritual disciplines in an attempt to draw closer to a God I almost always believe is there.

Isn’t that sad?  Not that I am just an average person doing the best’ish that I can. That’s not sad. What’s sad is that today was the first time it occurred to me that this is most likely not going to change.

I was sitting in my dining room, surrounded by eleven homeschoolers who were in an American Revolution class that I am teaching on Monday mornings.  The class was great; the kids were engaged, excited, learning, and having a blast.  So was I.  I couldn’t believe how much fun we were all having.

And then it hit me.  “This is it.  I’m never gonna do a whole lot more than this.  And my kids may not even grow up to appreciate how much it takes out of me to give myself over to them in this way.”

Maybe it’s because my father’s death ignited some sense that I bear the responsibility of his legacy.  Maybe it’s because of people like Phillis Wheatley and George Washington and John Adams, people whose words and deeds are having a profound effect on me as we study the Revolution.  Maybe it’s because of Andrew Solomon, whose book Far From The Tree I am reading and whose writing often makes me gasp or pump my fist in the air with its beauty.  Whatever it is, I am acutely aware of how little else I may do in my life.

When I told Jeff and two friends about my realization tonight, I surprised myself by tearing up.  I’m mourning the loss of something, and I’m not sure what to call it.  My dreams? Vanity?

Luckily, Jeff and my friends didn’t try to convince me that I was actually an amazing teacher or the like.  Instead, they asked me what could be more important than raising my kids.  They reminded me that this is what I feel called to do in this season.  They reminded me that God only asks us to be faithful; he’s responsible for results.  Finally, Syndi told me a Tolkien story whose message is that the things that look small here may have an eternal glory we can merely glimpse now.  It was all true, but it didn’t make me any less teary.

Maybe I’m having a spiritual mid-life crisis.  My spiritual director would probably ask me what Jesus is saying to me about a small life.  Good question, I would say.  Which is the only answer I have right now.

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  • T – you know that I would never deny you your feelings, but my first reaction to this was..is she crazy? You touch so many people’s lives every day. Every where you go you get people to do stuff and have fun. You provide shelter and food and love to anyone who shows up at your door. You write a blog that LOTS of people read about real stuff AND you are shaping young minds and hearts which is THE most important thing we can do to save the planet (OK, that might sound a little extreme, but I do actually believe this!). If it makes you feel any better, I was just thinking tonight that I need to refinance my mortgage because I am for sure going to die alone in this tiny apartment surrounded by beautiful power point decks. So you are not the only one who things their life is small, but it’s not even half over, we both have a lot of living to do!

    • Tara Edelschick

      Thanks, Shags. But since I normally love to hear people tell me how wonderful I am and that is not doing the trick today, I imagine something deeper is going on. (And what is a power point deck?)

      • I do understand. Well, at least your life does not totally suck (at least I am pretty sure that is how you feel about it) so if this is it, its not so bad 🙂

        PS: Do you really not know what a power point deck is? Our worlds are so different. “Deck” is a ridiculous business word for presentation. I guess because it is like a deck of slides? My company communicates everything in Microsoft Power Point.

  • Jen

    Tolkien – now there is a guy who makes everyone feel small … like Hobbits. I’m going to marry Cory Booker and have lots of important friends, so I can’t relate.

    • Tara Edelschick

      Of course you are darling.

  • Serena

    Of course I agree that your influence is WAY broader and deeper than you think (as I sit here reading your thoughts in Australia :-)). But I wonder if this is a Richard Rohr stage — you know, an essential part of the work of body and soul before you get to be the old crone! (And as you know, the old crone is exactly what we should all want to be). God is no doubt doing something important. I’ve been reading obituaries recently and thinking the same things. But I also love to be reminded of all the people (Moses, for one) who started important parts of their life’s work very late in the piece — and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you’re one of them….

    • Tara Edelschick

      Yes, Serena, this feels like pruning. I may become an old crone yet.

    • Eva

      So great to hear from you too Serena – you also had and continue to have a huge influence on me and my life!

  • Tina Teng-Henson

    mediocre blog?! untrue!!

  • Lindsay

    Hm…this is the first time I’ve ever seen your blog (it came up on my Patheos Facebook feed). I’m not sure what I want to say to you except thank you; I appreciate your honesty. The first thing I said to a friend this morning via Google-chat was “Go get your coffee quickly and come right back. I’m having my monthly exisitential crisis.” I just wanted to share that. Interesting timing.

  • Tiffany

    I think you read my mind and heart! I leave a resounding: “Me too:)” Thanks for sharing such a relatable post! God bless your journey to eternity!

  • Tara, I love your honest grieving here. I entered a similar realization when I realized my age was closer to 60 than to 50. With the kids gone from home, I’ve realized that dreams are past but I can make goals that are small but realizable–to get a story published. Maybe two. Perhaps even have my novel be published by someone other than me –even if it’s not read by many. I think what needs to happen as we grow older is a pruning out of the many good ideas. For example, I had thought I would travel all over when the kids were independent. Now I know that would mean my husband would have to work past 70 and I couldn’t go see my children when they live overseas because our discretionary money would be used up or I wouldn’t be able to to go the writer’s conferences that keep me inspired and learning more of the craft. So, the upshot is, what is truly most important to you of the many things you have hoped to accomplish.

  • mike

    First Sarah Palin reminded her tweet listeners “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” and second “I must decrease, that he may increase.” and let’s not forget “if you see me you see the Father” or “I am working, and my Father is working.” or my favorite “so when the son appears, you will appear with him in glory.” God bless you and the day of small things!

  • mike

    Zechariah 4:10 KJV

    For who hath despised the day of small things? for they shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel with those seven; they are the eyes of the Lord, which run to and fro through the whole earth.

  • Agkcrbs

    Everybody here is looking to make an impact in some way — but what kind of impact?

    Though it’s tragic to the worldly mind, the greatness of the world must die with the world. Mountains will be levelled, and valleys exalted. Like the beggar, Lazarus, the nobility in the next world will undoubtedly be those we never regarded (or even pitied) here, even now labouring unknown in hard but joyful silence among us, restrained by circumstance or deformation, or taken early from this life, while the highest of our earthly peers, often tellingly termed “idols” for their deceptively empty glory, will only very rarely exceed heavenly mediocrity, and never for their former pomp or recognition, but for their unseen character.

    Do not crave visibility or prominence, lest it become your only reward; crave the small, ubiquitous acts of goodness and inward victories that constitute spiritual wealth, a heritage for future multitudes. The greatest of all of us, our God, is the least visible among us, and that affords him the most selflessness.

    But if you have some unattended interest or buried gift, or need an extrication from the daily grind, go ahead with it; get up and do what few others do. For example, my thing is studying old or rare languages, trying to bridge many miles or generations of human variability and divine interposition. I’m currently discovering from public library resources how comprehensible old Egyptian hieroglyphs are, to my complete fascination. Wisdom is golden; even secular knowledge is silver; and it’s all here for the finding.

  • You, Tara, also make a great niece. As far as being destined for a Big Life… you had one and are having one. Life is for living. If one can touch others at the same time, even more so. When Scott passed away and your students came to the wake, I knew that you had touched many. Our lives change in many ways at all times. Yet, they stay the same forever. You will always be my great niece.

    • Tara Edelschick


  • I, too, appreciate your willingness to say these things “out loud.” I think you have a gift for seeing the universal struggle in your own day-to-day. Thank you for letting “us” benefit from that gift (though . . . wouldn’t it be better if we got paid! wait, did I just say that out loud?). But I hear you. I grieve the loss. Everyday. I’ve been trying to take notice of it in the morning, but not coddle it all day long. I’m afraid of becoming bitter as well as small, which usually turns into mean and self-absorbed. Practicing gratitude, the welcoming prayer, and forgiveness are my tools. Connection helps. This’ll be my connection for today. Peace.

    • Tara Edelschick

      Thanks, Dawn. And thanks for the tools.

  • Eva

    “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed planted in the ground. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade.”
    -From one of the many, many, many birds who have nested in the shade of your branches. You continue to inspire and provoke through your writing. I’m feeling very much the same way. Love you Tara.

  • Karen Miedrich-Luo

    I’m there – and feeling it acutely as I re-assess my goals at the beginning of the year. Thanks for being honest. I see myself in the mirror and I like reading what others are saying as encouragement.

  • Liz

    Thank you for this line: “Finally, claiming that I wanted a small life protected me from humiliation should the big life made inevitable by my brilliance not come to pass.”

  • kalimsaki

    Included in human nature is an intense love of immortality. Even, because of his power of imagination, man fancies a sort of immortality in everything he loves. He cries out from the depths of his being whenever he thinks of or sees their passing. All lamentations at separation are expressions of the weeping caused by love of immortality. If there were no imagined immortality, there would be no love. It might even be said that the intense desire for immortality arising from that passionate love of immortality, and from the spontaneous general prayer for immortality, is a reason for the existence of the eternal realm and everlasting Paradise. The Eternal One of Glory accepted man’s intense, unshakeable, innate desire and his powerful, effective, general prayer, for He created an eternal realm for him, a transient being.

  • I love this post, Tara. We all go through periods where we realize that the grand dreams we nurture in each other, the stories that we tell of heroes and brilliant minds, those who have a “big life” that gets remembered and celebrated by later generations, only come through happenstance. Not sure what to say from that except… I feel you. Sometimes the best choices we can make as men or women – to care for the people around us, to do our work well – can make our lives feel small in the scheme of grander things.

  • What a thoughtful post. Our addiction to hype deeply infects the church. All of us aspire, or once aspired, to do something great for God. Who gets to define “great”? I can’t avoid thinking of Dorcas in Acts 9. All she did was make clothes for the needy, a baby’s first oufit, wedding garments for friends – all done with exquisite care of craftmanship and love. Appreciated and loved as someone special in the fabric of daily life but not much applause. Then she dies and Peter came; everything made in private flew like banners in the wind. The gathered crowd saw miracle and witnessed gospel. Under the hand of Jesus the stitches came together beyond what she could imagine into a great work of God. The plain things done in small ways (like cups of cold water) in small places like sewing rooms and homeschool classrooms will have their day. Jesus will bring the common stitches together in His power, love, truth, holiness and beauty beyond anything we would’ve imagined. And we will have been found to be part of what we hoped for but may have never recognized – a great work of God. Love the blog.

  • Elizabeth

    St. Therese of Lisieux wrote something about this. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it so I’ll have to shoot from the hip. She said that we are all called to greatness. We are all called to be saints. She had this same feeling and she said we all feel that inner calling to greatness because God put it in us. I think we put different faces on it throughout our lives but that’s what it is. So become great in a “Little Way”;)

    • Tara Edelschick

      Thanks for this response, Elizabeth. I’ve been wondering over the last week if, in fact, my sadness is not a holy dissatisfaction. It’s not that I’m called to do something great, but to be someone great, for and with God. I’m wondering if I’m noticing how far off the mark I am in so many areas.

      • Elizabeth

        Don’t worry about that. We all get it wrong. It’s the human condition! Just accept what’s in each day- each moment really. We don’t have to understand God’s plan in our life. We just need to try our best. One day I saw this woman who had 8 kids from my home schooling group at the store and she looked very overwhelmed. I was having many temptations to run from my responsibilities at the time and when I saw her I thought, “I don’t want that! I want to look attractive and happy and have more things and time for myself.” (I have 8 kids and was homeschooling as well) In an instant God showed me how I (the world) saw her and how He saw her: I cry when I think about it because she was just “perfect” in His eyes. She was doing exactly as He had asked her but she didn’t look good to the world. It was her intention that he saw! I don’t even recall knowing if she was doing a good job or not, (I’m pretty sure she does a really good job!) but she had very loving intentions and that’s what God focused on. She had a hard life that showed in her appearance, but He didn’t even look at that! That experience has changed my thinking. We really are off the mark with our thinking! Oh well. We just need to stay open to God’s loving graces and He will teach us and take care of us. It’s humbling to know our weakness- but that’s a good thing.

  • Bryan

    If gorging on episodes of Treme is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

  • maria olaughlin

    Hi Tara, Esthers sister here. I remember at her 40th birthday party you and I were sitting on a bed in a lovely seaside home and you told me your “story” while I told you mine.I was in a bad place emotionally and you really reached out to me. That is a gift. You really ought to write something like a book because I think you are very insightful and you are able to convey your thoughts well in written words. That is a gift. I have been having an opposite type of crisis. I feel like I have accomplished big things in business and not so much at home. I have sacrificed quite a bit of myself for my professional pursuits and really feel like that is where I do my ” Best work” that sucks to feel like that after being a mother for 15 years to one darling handicapped daughter and one quite brilliant but not too motivated son. I feel like a complete failure as a mom but am receiving an award given to 10 people out of 180,000 in a new business I started one year ago! Why do I feel like I missed the mark? I dont want to complain and feel blessed for financial and professional success but that doesnt take care of you when you are older or care that you pass away! My sister would say otherwise …she says I am a agood mom for doing custom birthday parties and going to a bieber concert, monster truck shows etc when I would rather have been reading but really? I think I should have given up more and been ok being “just a PT” I always felt I had to do more, earn more be more..it is kind of haunting. Thanks for sharing your insight I have always idolized home schooling moms…it is so out of my league. Glad you feel just as small as I do if for no other reason than maybe we each do this in our own way not bigger or smaller than anyone else.