We do not all have to shine

In an op-ed column by David Brooks in the New York Times entitled The Small, Happy Life, there’s a line that struck a chord so deep within my heart:

Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ [emphasis mine] This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”

Every time I reread this phrase, the sound of it still sends waves through my brain like someone hitting a small bell inside my head.

We do not all have to shine.

Sure, some people may have differing ideas of what it means to shine. To you, it may be as simple as being compassionate to those around you. However, I’ve always taken a more macroscopic view of ‘shining.’  Shining means making a palpable difference in the world. It means doing something meaningful that would change the world forever. This restrictive view of shining has haunted me since I can remember. So the phrase “we do not all have to shine” is almost a slap in the face that’s saying to me “Wake up! It’s okay to be small!”

I suspect this is a struggle shared by only a few of my fellow inhabitants of our beautiful but fragile planet. My urgency and insistence that we have to shine is partly influenced by my Buddhist uprising, and the rate at which our habitat is degrading. There is much work to be done. We need more passionate and committed individuals to step up and reverse the ecological moral decline that’s plagued the 21st century. Accepting that it’s okay not to shine, in my interpretation, is like a resignation, an admission that I cannot make a difference, or an irresponsibility, a belief that the world’s problem is not my own.

So far, my thought process has been especially toxic to myself. I am especially hard on myself for not being able to do better. I feel like a burden, taking up our planet’s resources without giving anything meaningful in return. I’m especially adamant about this last point. Some people view it as their birthright to be able to utilize the earth’s resources without restraint. This is selfish and irresponsible, and a topic for a later post (What do you owe to the country? What do you owe to the planet?)

With all this said, I must also question why I want my impact to be felt on a global scale. To say that it is out of pure altruism is not quite valid; there is definitely an element of ego involved. I wonder if it’s the same for the high-achieving individuals who work in the social change field. Are they truly selfless? Or are they too partially motivated by a desire for validation? Viewed this way, the idea of “we all don’t have to shine” becomes no longer black-and-white.

I’m a firm believer that there is a plan for us all, and that plan doesn’t necessary involve us becoming famous. After all, shining is not a synonym of fame. As I probe this idea further, another thought is circling around my mind: It’s NOT okay not to shine, and it’s not okay to stop trying. What I’ve been wrong about is what shining can be. Impact can be defined in different ways. It doesn’t have to be big; it just have to be meaningful. I’ve given a lot of thought to the idea of ‘indirect impact’, and how one small impact event can shake up a whole system–a topic of my next post.

Now I just have to convince myself of this thought.

PS I’m back!!! After a long absence, I finally forced myself to write this post. It’s funny how you have to work really hard to make yourself do something you know would be laborious but ultimately enjoyable. These blog posts are pretty taxing on my brain, but they help me process ideas and find answers to my own big questions. So thank you to those who read my blog or encourage me to continue to write!


3 thoughts on “We do not all have to shine

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