Little Works

I find it sad that our large projects, dedicated as they are to what interests us most, can wind up being so burdensome. They can even lead us to hate our topic, not because there’s anything inherently bad or boring about it (in fact it probably fascinates us), but because we’ve been forced to filter it through the form of the “project,” with all its chapter headings and footnotes, its obligatory narrations and objective stances, up to the very serious and studied tone that, for all its worth, places strong limits on expressivity and inventiveness.

When fascination is forced into formal presentation, a tastelessness almost inevitably seems to ensue. We feel obliged to exaggerate and deceive, to dress up our insights for the board of directors whose judgment will decide our fate. Paranoia about our own competence grows with every step, since we feel we have to be our own most ruthless evaluator to succeed. So the proportions of the thing swell profusely, uncontrollably. We feel obliged to take account of whatever we’re taking into account, why so and why not, and then what else. We behave like a sorting agent on a mental assembly line, picking which of our thoughts is worth entry and which door they should be shuffled through. Staring down section after section, edit after edit, we’re led to a point of saturation and exhaustion―and in some cases total stupidity. Everything blurs together and one stops being sure what difference it all makes. Which amounts to saying one would give anything for it all to just be finished. Of course, that’s not possible, since deep down it matters to you very much that you get it right, sometimes even in spite of yourself. What do you care about, after all? Haven’t you decided to do this with your life? And other such thoughts on the brink of starting a fire with the shreds…

Now, on the opposite side of the spectrum, there are those pieces that come in suddenness, with no strings or deadlines attached. They don’t need to stretch out into a “project,” and so they come much more naturally to the mind―even if, like many things destined to be small, they’re often left unattended or discredited as lesser. Like a poem we jot on the back of a random piece of paper, they are little escapes, flashes of clarity, guilty pleasures relative to the law of the official document we constantly have to “back up” lest we lose everything we’ve done. But for the moment’s thought, there is no loss, because its element is already without much expectation. It approximates the free gift made in leisure, rather than the costly product pressed by labor. Perhaps that is why we switch off and engage social media for distractions: they bring us a real-time distance from what we’re doing, so that our eyes don’t keep spinning in the frame of a project at risk of becoming dreadfully insular. There is something refreshingly simple about the “immateriality” of what gets traded online, virtually. It keeps one light. Nothing has to last for more than a day or so, sometimes even less. Everything is flexibly passed on or passed over. The format may be unserious, but what goes on on it doesn’t have to be. It signals, in a sense, the expansion of the “anecdotal” realm of thought: those little stories researchers sometimes look to as the key to the larger project, that little tidbit or rumored quote that somehow illuminates the whole with a light that, being so average, escaped notice or wasn’t considered.

Seen in light of what takes place anecdotally in this way and its regular importance and depth for those who engage it with heart, it is the project that starts to seem meaningless and distracting. It forces one to remember it’s all already happen; there is no future space in which some larger thought will be revealed. Everything ultimately has no more or less grandeur than a virtual post. Far from being an excuse to not work, it is to see these minor pieces as no less worthy of development than the larger projects. It is to see the complicity between the anecdotal and the “monumental”―perhaps even to live a life in which daily life and eternal life are inseparable.

Capability grows honest through the little works. And who knows? Perhaps if we took all these minimal exchanges with the same seriousness as big projects, we wouldn’t need to fixate on them anymore? Either that or it would make them all the more dear to us―and less burdensome.

―April 20, 2017

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