G.K. Chesterton’s essay Tremendous Trifles was a treat with a strong opinion. It tells of two boys who are granted wishes.
One is granted the wish to be a giant, so he could visit far off lands. But upon becoming a giant and visiting these lands, he found everything to seem very small and lose its magic.
The other boy wishes to become a tiny pigmy. He was shrunk down to size and found tremendous fascination in the tiny details of the world around him.
He likens these two boys to different approaches to fiction and story-telling. The giant is like Rudyard Kipling, who travels the world to see great heights and witness great things. To have mastery over the world and to write about the conquest.
Chesterton sees himself as the pigmy. Seeking to live a small life and instead explore the universes inside the small world around him. Sit idle. Look in the small corners.
Today we would almost certainly present these as two different, but equally-valid approaches. But Chesterton paints this as a moral dilemma. That one who seeks to enlarge themselves is in part doing so for the joy of making others small.
I have no shortage of ambition. I seek to do great things. Am I doing this to make others small? I don’t think so.
But what if I had a choice of two worlds? In one world I was a great person known for my outsized accomplishments. I surpassed all others. In another, I did exactly the same great things, but all my achievements paled in comparison to everyone else. The world around is full of human excellence. And all of my same achievements are surpassed by the brilliance around me. I am the dullard by comparison.
The second world would be filled with incredible wonder. With so much incredible capability, clearly the second world would be far, far better off.
But I don’t think I would honestly choose that second world. I think I would be miserable in my inadequacy. I would feel worthless by comparison.
Does that mean I want to see others as small? Does that mean I enjoy the belittlement of others?
I don’t know. I didn’t think so, but the thought exercise has me unsure of myself. Maybe at the heart of ambition is simply the wish to be better than. And isn’t that a wish to see others as small?
I suppose achievement is always relative. Greatness is not an objective thing, but can only be understood in relative terms. Climbing Mount Everest is a great endeavor. But if we lived in a world where toddlers could do it, then no one would care and no one would bother.
There is another way of looking at this that I think is related somehow. Another spectrum. Maybe it’s not what Chesterton was talking about, but a second cousin.
We can struggle to have mastery of the world around us. Struggle to achieve. Define ourselves by the mark we leave on the world.
But we can also struggle to have mastery over ourselves. Control how the world affects us.
When I was younger I cared more about tearing a me-shaped hole in the world. I would burn the candle at both ends. I would rage at the world. It had no right to stand in my way.
Now I care a little more about the shape of me than about the hole I make in the world. Try to react with kindness. Patience. Even for myself. I don’t always succeed. But at least now I try.
That’s probably a natural part of growing older. Some sense of wisdom, I can hope. Or at least a better sense of self.
But I’m not done being ambitious. Not by a long shot. My best work is ahead of me. And I will pursue it with principles and integrity and a strong sense of myself.
If that means there is some fingerprint of evil on all greatness, then I say so be it. If this is what propels us, then quite simply — this is what propels us. Isn’t it a greater evil to waste the talents and capabilities given to us?