A century ago or so, a portly English gentleman named Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote a collection of essays which he entitled Tremendous Trifles. In his opening essay, he tells a parable–a fairy story, he says–about two boys who are each granted a wish by a passing milkman. The first boy asks to be made a giant, that he might stroll across the earth’s surface and see its wonders before teatime. However, as he investigates Niagara Falls, he finds it seems horribly insignificant–like a bathroom faucet–in comparison with his new, gargantuan stature. Other wonders have been rendered similarly unimpressive, so, Chesterton says, “he wandered round the world for several minutes trying to find something really large and finding everything small, till in sheer boredom he lay down on four or five prairies.” That boy comes to a bad end, but the real tragedy, it’s clear, is that the whole world is suddenly boring under his new perspective.
The other boy asks instead to become very small–about half an inch high–and discovers that his front yard, once small and insufficient, has become something immense and of infinite interest:
When the transformation was over he found himself in the midst of an immense plain, covered with a tall green jungle and above which, at intervals, rose strange trees each with a head like the sun in symbolic pictures, with gigantic rays of silver and a huge heart of gold. Toward the middle of this prairie stood up a mountain of such romantic and impossible shape, yet of such stony height and dominance, that it looked like some incident of the end of the world. And far away on the faint horizon he could see the line of another forest, taller and yet more mystical, of a terrible crimson colour, like a forest on fire for ever. He set out on his adventures across that coloured plain; and he has not come to the end of it yet.
One can imagine the adventures a boy, suddenly half an inch tall, might have upon encountering an army of ants, or a leviathan garter snake–things for which he might not have had much respect previously. It’s the adventure of seeing things with new eyes.
Chesterton admits happily that he is the pygmy–the boy who would rather see mole hills as mountains than lose all interest in the glory of Mt. Everest. The literature of the time proclaims all the “extraordinary things a man may see if he is active and strides from continent to continent like the giant” in the fairy story. But the aim of Tremendous Trifles is wholly different: “to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing.”
Look closely enough at anything and you’re liable to find something fascinating, in other words. Consider that all your great knowledge and stature and frantic activity might not be helping you to take in the wonders of the world, after all.
The final paragraph of this initial essay contain the highly-retweetable quotation which everyone (even folks who don’t realize the context) likes to reference. For me, it sparked an idea for an entire thesis (a project which I am currently having an exceedingly hard time finding joy or wonder in). I hear increasingly that our latest technologies are somehow making the world smaller–a good thing, it seems, when in reference to bridging cultures and countries–but a troubling concept for a “pygmy,” or anyone who gets concerned when people find virtual reality more engrossing than real life.
If you’ve got thoughts on this, I’d love to hear ’em, friend! Here’re the last three sentences of Chesterton’s piece for you:
I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you. The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.