We must learn to be big in a way we’ve never been big – we must claim our right to take up space, to say our words, to claim our desires. We must also learn to be small in a way we’ve never been small – to be in service, led not by our egos or by our desire for material goods or by our fears and aversions, but by our desire to be liberated from these things. And we must do both at the same time.
I immediately highlighted this quote while reading Holly Whitaker’s book, Quit Like A Woman. I “mmm-hmm’d” out loud. And her words dropped right into my center. You’ve had those experiences, yes? You hear something, read something, see something, and you just know it is deeply, powerfully true. (This happened multiple times throughout: my highest of recommendations!)
We must learn to be big in a way we’ve never been big….We must also learn to be small in a way we’ve never been small…
Let’s be honest. That first phrase inspires us: We must learn to be big in a way we’ve never been big. ”YES!” we shout to the Universe as we sit up a little taller and feel a little stronger. That second phrase? We must also learn to be small. I’m quite certain it’s on-purpose that it’s named after the first. I’m also quite certain that for most of us, it got our attention, our acknowledgement, and our (re)commitment. No “YES!”, but a resigned awareness, a heavy sigh, and shoulders that slump just the tiniest, imperceptible bit.
So why the different response to each? Both matter – big and small. We hardly disagree with Whitaker’s words.
Being small is what we default to. It’s what we know to do. It’s what we’ve been conditioned to do our whole lives as girls-then-women. True, at its best, it is a good and lovely thing: to serve, to extend compassion, to put others before ourselves, to tamp down our own desires on behalf of something larger, better, and “other” than us. In many ways, it’s a marker of growth and maturity – this ability and willingness to intentionally choose the higher good over our own.
(You knew one was coming, right?)
We are so good at this that we’ve lost sight of what happens when the “higher good” isn’t anything close and instead, we’re choosing anything and everyone over ourselves, most often without even being aware that it’s happening.
I learned this lesson well growing up and, let me be clear, with the best of intentions; nothing about it was overtly malicious or maligned. You probably learned it, too – among many other things, the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
My mom had a series of hand motions she taught me so that I could remember. It was like putting on a glove – each word being the slightest tug onto a finger until finally it was completely in place:
Do – thumb
unto – index finger
others – middle finger
as – ring finger
you – pinky finger; then turning your hand around to the other side…
would – pinky finger
have – ring finger
others – middle finger
do – index finger
unto – thumb
you – gently pull the glove down completely, smoothing it out and over your wrist
Translated: be good, be kind, be generous, put others first (because, of course, you want them to put you first…which, oddly, they never seem to do). Don’t gossip, don’t be mean, don’t hit, don’t lie, don’t hurt anyone’s feelings (because, of course, you don’t want them to hurt yours, even though, apparently, they didn’t get the same mnemonic device or memo that I did). And the outcome of this? We become small. The motivation was pure; but over time, it became the very way in which we were diminished and, too often, destroyed – one word, one finger, one glove, one “do unto others” at a time. We look up – now in our teens or twenties or thirties or forties or fifties or sixties (you get the idea) – and wonder how, where, and when we disappeared.
We’ve gotten so good at these behaviors, at being small, that we’ve defined ourselves by their presence and consistency, shamed ourselves when we’ve fallen short, and lost ourselves in the process.
Which is why Holly Whitaker also says this:
Perhaps before we can learn to be both big and small at the same time, we first have to learn to be big…I’ve had to learn to get big, in order to practice being small.
…practice being small.
This is what we need where small is concerned. Most of us don’t actually know how to be small in ways that don’t consume us or find us constantly complying and compromising. We need to learn.
What if small doesn’t mean losing space or strength or power or voice? What if small doesn’t mean sacrificing self? What if small doesn’t mean apologizing or taking the back burner or being patient (yet again)?
If any of these things are true (note: all of them are), then Whitaker is right: we need lots of practice.
…we first have to learn to be big.
(It’s my next blog post, I promise.)
I have learned that before I can even hope to step into new ways of being, big ways of being, sovereign ways of being, I have to unravel and deconstruct my known ways, my common ways, the part of me that feels like DNA. I have to look under the rug and into the dark corners of my mind. I have to be willing to acknowledge (without shame) the lessons I’ve incorporated over a lifetime – from whom and why – and then begin playing those tapes s l o w l y forward – watching each scene unfold. I must look at individual narratives (those I’ve been told and those I tell myself), watch myself within them, and with massive grace, begin-and-continue-to understand how I’ve become who I am.
I have done a lot of this in the past twenty years. It’s not been easy or simple – this thread-by-thread, story-by-story unraveling of all that’s made me who I am.
I go through seasons in which I take up either knitting or crocheting – another thing my mom taught me. I love the practice of it, the experience, the rhythm, the calm. It comes to mind right now – as it relates to unraveling.
If I’m crocheting and I spot a mistake I can quickly unravel to that point and nothing is at risk. The yarn and loops and twists all stay in place when you crochet. It only unravels when I unravel it – with little-to-no risk. Unlike knitting…
When I spot a mistake while knitting I now have to make a very difficult decision: do I fix it, or not? To unravel means that I have to painstakingly unloop each stitch and, simultaneously, put its predecessor back on the needle. I can’t pull too hard. I can’t stop in-process. If I succumb to my frustration or impatience, it can’t be salvaged.
Here’s the thing: I often choose crocheting because of this very reason. It’s far easier – both to fix and to finish! But were I given the choice of a completed blanket or sweater or scarf (that someone else made for me), I’d choose something knitted. It is more complex. It is more smooth. It is more elegant. It is more beautiful, at least to my eye.
My life is not crocheted. Nor is yours. We’re knitted together. And to unravel that knitting, those stories, those DNA-level lessons, is precarious work indeed, not to be taken lightly, and requires great intention, patience, and care – as well as a deep commitment to the value of the fixand the finished “product” we’re working toward.
To step into the life we long to live – to be big, we must claim our right to take up space, to say our words, to claim our desires. But that cannot happen, at least at full capacity and glory and amazing-ness, until we understand why “small” feels far more natural, far easier. We must understand why it has been required of us – even demanded (hint: patriarchy). To be big, we must unravel our stories of small. Then we can begin (re)creating; row after row of experiences and decisions and characteristics and ways of being that are informed by how small (at least as we’ve been trained to understand and express it) has not done us enough favors, what being big requires of us, and who we are when we can finally choose both.
The word I use for all of this – the work of becoming all of who you are, stepping into your deep and inherent wisdom, demonstrating strength, and extending yourself (and others) grace along the way is SOVEREIGNTY.
I have a Facebook Group called by the same name that I’d LOVE for you to join. And I’m working on a program that is week’s away from being released – filled with these very processes and practices, naming truths and telling stories and unraveling beliefs that hinder; being big (and small). SUBSCRIBE to get notification of when it’s available for you.