Friday, August 26, 2011

a teaspoon of life

I was at my parent's house the other day and when my stomach growled for a mid-morning snack, I reached into the cereal cupboard and pulled out my dad's favorite cereal, Life. Upon opening the box and unfurling the neatly rolled bag, I found just a few crumbs barely filling a corner of the plastic.

"Mom, look," I called over to the next room. "Dad left just a teaspoon of Life in the bag. Why wouldn't you just finish that?"

Upon further inspection, I discovered that the aforementioned crumbs were about 90% sugar crystals. Aha! I thought. Well, who would want to eat a mouthful of sugar? And so it seemed that the not-very-scintillating mystery was solved.

But my mom was still stuck on what I had just said. "A teaspoon of life," she mused aloud. "What would that be? And would it be a good thing? Or not?"

Most of us want "full" lives. That is the word we so often use to describe having a fulfilling job, creating our own families with the ones we love, doing something meaningful, finding our own answer to the elusiveness of happiness. How can a teaspoon be that full?

A teaspoon is on the smaller side of spoon measurements for baking and cooking. A tablespoon, the biggest spoon measurement, is equal to about 3 teaspoons. Clearly a tablespoon of life would be a lot better than a teaspoon. On the other hand, there are 1/2 teaspoons and 1/4 teaspoons and even 1/8 teaspoons. Definitely worse.

But is it that simple? Is the answer to everything always bigger and more? There is a documentary directed by Christopher Bell called Bigger Faster Stronger. Bell is a wrestler-turned weight lifter-turned confused and disillusioned adult who chose not to take steroids while his two brothers both have taken them for years. The film description on IMDB reads: "In America, we define ourselves in the superlative: we are the biggest, fastest, strongest country in the world?" Bell takes as his starting point a follow-up question: Is this competitive and consummate approach truly bringing positive results? And so, I ask, would a billion tablespoons of life be better than a teaspoon? Is a huge athlete on steroids happier than a tall, sinewy MIT professor?

Can we measure life at all? And is that the way to advance towards what might actually be significant and meaningful? Most people would agree that you cannot measure love. But people dreamily seem to believe that you can measure life. Perhaps if you approached them with the question in a philosophical discussion, they would argue: no, like love, you cannot measure life. Nonetheless, so many people spend all of their time and money and effort compiling 'things': the biggest house on the block with the newest kitchen and entertainment room, the most luxurious SUV, the vacations to St. Barts and Jackson Hole, the kids and dog to fill out the picture. Often, there is never any discerning hard look at what they might actually want out of life... just that competitive, "superlative-ness" urging them onward towards bigger, better, best, most.

In reality, I don't know that a teaspoon of life would be all that bad. There is something elegant about a teaspoon, certainly more refined than the awkward bulkiness of the tablespoon. If you cook a lot, you know that when subtly directing a dish, you most often add a teaspoon or less of a spice. And that does the job. More and it wrecks it, overpowers everything else. And when baking, a teaspoon of salt (or less) is the key to bringing out all the sweetness of the pastry or baked good.

And what about even less than a teaspoon of life? In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a book I find myself mentioning A LOT on this blog, Oskar is a huge Stephen Hawking fan. In the midst of reading A Brief History of Time, he finds himself feeling highly insignificant in comparison to the enormity of the universe and all of time. He approaches his father later that night with his concerns:
"When Dad was tucking me in that night and we were talking about the book, I asked if he could think of a solution to that problem. "Which problem?" "The problem of how relatively insignificant we are." He said, "Well, what would happen if a plane dropped you in the middle of the Sahara Desert and you picked up a single grain of sand with tweezers and moved it one millimeter?" I said, "I'd probably die of dehydration." He said, "I just mean right then, when you moved that single grain of sand. What would that mean?" I said, "I dunno, what?" He said, "Think about it." I thought about it. "I guess I would have moved a single grain of sand." "Which would mean?" "Which would mean I moved a grain of sand?" "Which would mean you changed the Sahara." "So?" "So? So the Sahara is a vast desert. And it has existed for millions of years. And you changed it!" "That's true!"I said, sitting up. "I changed the Sahara!" "Which means?" he said. "What? Tell me." "Well, I'm not talking about painting the Mona Lisa or curing cancer. I'm just talking about moving that one grain of sand one millimeter." "Yeah?" "If you hadn't done it, human history would have been one way..." "Uh-huh?" "But you did do it, so...?" I stood on the bed, pointed my fingers at the fake stars, and screamed: "I changed the course of human history!" "That's right." "I changed the universe!" "You did." "I'm God!" "You're an atheist." "I don't exist!" I fell back onto the bed, into his arms, and we cracked up together. (p. 86)
In this case, all it takes is a grain. One grain and the universe is changed. Isn't that encouraging? Isn't that exhilarating and buoying and reassuring? Perhaps all we need is one grain of life. We think too hard about having too much. We think we can't do something now because we aren't experienced or progressed enough. But we can. We just need one grain. We can all make a difference with very little. And if we all put our little grains together, just think about the huge pile we would create.

Perhaps I will go and share that teaspoon of life with the ones I love. It is more than enough.

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