That’s the typical reaction of someone who knows me, seeing me in my glasses for the first time. I don’t have the best vision, so I need strong glasses. Glasses that make my eyes big. Glasses that magnify my eyeballs.
As a species, we’ve figured out to how to make things big. How to see what is, in reality, small. We can examine cells at the microscopic level. We can split the atom.
Last week, I came across a beautiful idea in Goethe’s Maxims and Reflections. He talks about making the small, big. Goethe says that we have magnifying glasses, but perhaps what we need is a minimising glass. A device which helps us to see ourselves from a distance. Which helps us see the “view from above,” as Pierre Hadot would put it. An instrument which compels us to appreciate our smallness.
While we may not have such a device, there are some worthy substitutes.
The closest would be to go to space. How better to appreciate our smallness than to leave Planet Earth and look back on it from space? Another would be to travel. Once we step outside the bounds of our own culture, we learn about the endless variety of communities and individuals around the world. After experiencing different cultures and ways of life, we cannot easily retain our insular worldview. We could also spend more time amongst nature. In great forests, by the mountains, on the sea. All these things are vast, and in close proximity to them we are reminded of our smallness. We feel insignificant in comparison to the wonders of the world. A good sense of history also helps. Knowing that, for thousands of years, we have grappled with the same human problems helps us to understand that our lives are just a tiny piece of the great puzzle.
However you choose to go about it, seeking out a sense of smallness will benefit you. It will force you to realise the pettiness of the majority of our concerns. And it will help you appreciate the vast, complex tapestry that is this world and the human race.