Saturday, May 09, 2015

Bigger Big and Smaller Small

Our sun is big.. but Betelgeuse is much bigger!
On our way home the other day from a family excursion, somehow we got on to discussing the size of the sun. My five year old daughter was trying to get her head round how big it is:

"Is it as big as a double decker bus?"

"Two double decker buses?"
Much bigger.

"A ship".
Even bigger than a ship.

I suggested she needed to think bigger... there was a pause, then:
"Is it as big as God?", to which the answer is of course no.

Daughter 1, Daddy 0.

To be honest, even I struggle to get my head round how big the sun is, how far away the other planets in our solar system are and other gigantic things, like the number "a trillion". It's much easier to scale things down to a manageable size, something easier to relate to, like two double decker buses.

Whether I can get my head around it or not, our sun is really big - the internet says that you could fit about 1.3million earths inside it. But as stars go, our sun's pretty small. There's a bigger big when it comes to stars. Take Betelgeuse, a mere 642 light years away (a phenomenal distance). It's much, much bigger than our own sun - in fact if it were at the centre of our solar system it would extend right out to Jupiter.
"It's much easier to scale things down to a manageable size, something easier to relate to..."
Our tendency to scale things down in our minds also applies to our dreams and talents. Without even realising we're doing it, we can put an invisible ceiling on what we think we're able to achieve, like a height barrier on a car park. Not that I'm saying we should all become megalomaniacs, obsessed with being the biggest and the best,  just that we mustn't artificially scale ourselves down. We need a bigger big for our dreams - to raise that height barrier.

I think it was Bill Gates who said "most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years". Perhaps we think we can only achieve small things because in the past we've tried to do too much too soon and burnt out. When you need to go big, you need to pace yourself. For me I think this is a bit like running. The further I need to run, the slower I need to adjust my pace. My flat-out mile pace just isn't sustainable if I want to run a half marathon. If I want to cover a lot of distance, it's better to start slower.

Don't be scared of shadows
At the other end of the scale, sometimes we magnify obstacles and problems so that in our minds they appear much bigger than they are. There are moments when small things cast a big shadow, and we get more scared at the size of the shadow than the challenge itself. Often for me this takes the form of difficult phone calls I need to make at work - usually the thought of the phone call, the shadow, is much worse than the phone call itself!
"When you need to go big, you need to pace yourself"
If you've ever read The Gruffalo's Child, a fantastic children's book by Julia Donaldson, then you'll know that The Big Bad Mouse that the Gruffalo is frightened of is really just the large shadow of a small mouse.  When shadows are looming large in our life we need a better perspective - we need a smaller small, especially when the real thing is much smaller than the shadows it casts in our mind.

I've been guilty of overestimating the shadows and underestimating my abilities in the past. When I was 8 or 9 I started canoeing at a local club on the river Thames. Other kids seemed to pick it up much more quickly than I did. My confidence took longer to build up, and for a while I was petrified of falling in - worried about being bitten by a giant pike! I got there in the end, was even reasonably successful, but it took a few dunks in the river to realise that my fears of giant pikes were just shadows. The shadow cast in my mind by my fear of falling in was much bigger than the experience itself. Hopefully I'm more self aware these days, but the point is that it's easy to talk ourselves into not doing things when we talk up the obstacles and talk down our abilities.
"Sometimes small things cast a big shadow, and we get more scared at the size of the shadow than the challenge itself"
You're not a chicken!
There's a modern parable about an eagle that's brought up thinking it's a chicken. It spends it's life digging in the dirt with the other chickens, earthbound, and never knows the life it could have lived soaring in the skies.

In lots of ways I think this is a pretty unbelievable tale, but it does make a good point that we mustn't judge ourselves by the people around us or the circumstances we find ourselves in. We're each called to run our own race - we're each wired uniquely for a distinctive contribution - the challenge is not to spend our lives digging in the dirt or living in fear of shadows.

Maybe it's time to open yourself up to new experiences, to go public with your dreams. To take off the height barrier. Maybe it's time to get some perspective on those scary shadows, whether it's the fear of giant pike or something equally small. It could be that you just need to take the plunge - to fall in - to realise it's not so bad after all.

When you see the sun this week, remind yourself that there's a bigger big out there. And when you see your shadow remember that small things can cast big shadows but that the Big Bad Mouse is pretty small after all.
"the challenge is not to spend our lives digging in the dirt or living in fear of shadows."

Thanks for taking the time to read Bigger Big and Smaller Small. If you've enjoyed it please share it with your friends on social media. Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

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