They tell us to look at the Big Picture. And in the 21st century, we are feeling the effects of technology giving us access to the Big Picture – we can collect and be presented data from all over the world and even beyond. It’s a constant flood of data that we feel we have to process and consume. We feel we have to be aware about it, have opinions about it, act to affect the Big Picture.
But we can’t affect the Big Picture.
This isn’t a message of powerlessness, however. I’m not saying we are resigned to our fate and we can do nothing about the world. See, the problem with the Big Picture is a lie. The Big Picture doesn’t exist.
The Big Picture is a dangerous idea. It makes us think that there is an overarching reality, that there is a single overall thing we call Life. We try to examine life, understand it as this amazing thing that we partake in. But we don’t partake in anything like that. What we think is the Big Picture is a sand-painting made up of the results of countless mid-life collisions and and multi-soul pile ups.
Here’s the truth: no one lives in the Big Picture. We live in little pictures. We live in little individual universes that are framed by our boundaries as finite beings. We live in little pictures that overlap with other little pictures, little pictures that collide with each other and bounce wildly back and forth like a mass of super balls dumped into the top of an empty elevator shaft. There are patterns, and global principles, and all that sure, but in the end, the universe isn’t a big thing, it’s a countless number of little things knocking around.
This isn’t about fatalism. This is an acknowledgement of the nature of the universe, so that we understand the power we do have and what we can do.
Because there is something that we do have enormous power over: our little pictures.
First, they say politics is local. We can’t direct other people’s universes, but we can steer our ship. And it is inevitable that we will collide with others. Some will be pirates, trying to loot what they can from you. But most will just be other people trying to steer their picture the best way they can. That means that the first thing that you can do is make those collisions count, to decide to lean back and forth in an attempt to crash into people in the best way possible.
Every bump is a chance to make the universe a better place. With every bump, we can try to do right by the other people around us – to give a nudge in the right direction, to be careful not to bump into their bruises and wounds, to learn something from running into each other, to help someone get on a better course.
Sure, we want to make the biggest changes we can in the world. But except in very special circumstances, we are all just bumping into one another. And if we don’t take care with those little bumps, we simply will never make any headway. This is the way that we have to combat the evils in the world – cruelty, racism, injustice, bigotry, greed, and everything else. It can’t be about the big gestures, because so little of life is big gestures. Rather, we fight against those evils with every little bump against another person’s universe, striving to be the best collision we can be.
That seems exhausting, but we also have the power to make it easier and more sustainable. Once again, it comes down to primary capability in life – the power to affect our own little picture.
You see, your picture may be little, but that doesn’t mean your picture can’t be detailed. The size of your picture doesn’t affect the resolution of your picture – how many pixels per inch that your life has. One of the ways you make all those collisions count is by making your picture the most beautiful, detailed, and meaningful picture you can.
“Arete” is what Edith Hamilton describes as the ancient Greek definition of happiness: The exercise of vital powers, along lines of excellence, in a life affording them scope. We’ve been taught that the world is a place of scarcity, and that we have to fight over the scraps. But the truth is that arete is an infinite resource. The possibility for excellence cannot be bought or sold, it cannot be taken away.
I don’t mean to trivialize the pain that a lot of people deal with every day, nor do I deny the tragedy in the world. I am not trying to imply that injustice isn’t real, horrific, and often overwhelming. I’m not saying that the world can’t break you.
But I am trying to say is that every little iota of arete, every little mote of human excellence is precious and beautiful and enduring. It cannot be corrupted by the darkness in the world, it cannot be destroyed. Every one you bring into the world is a mithril thread in the tapestry that sits in the frame of your little picture. Every moment of good in your life is a diamond embedded in the surface of history. And it doesn’t matter if that’s a small gem, or a gem covered in ash and soot, or one gem among many. It’s still a motherfucking diamond, and it is a part of your picture.
Shine on, you crazy diamond.
The Big Picture is a dangerous tool, because with it we can easily forget the power of the little picture we actually live in. I think that’s the biggest danger of the Internet age.