In life, sometimes we all need encouragement. And there are plenty of times when we all need more humility. To find balance, we have to call on these qualities in the right moments of our lives.
There is an old Jewish teaching that I remind myself of often. Rabbi Simcha Bunim, an 18th Century Polish rabbi, taught that one should write the following verses on separate slips of paper and keep one in each pocket:
The world was created for my sake. (Talmud)
I am but dust and ashes. (Genesis)
As the teaching goes, you should draw on each slip when you need them most. When you feel down and full of despair, you should pull out the slip that reminds you that the whole world was created for your sake alone. But when you feel full of yourself, when you feel invincible and arrogant, you should pull out the slip that reminds you that you are nothing, just dust.
I am nothing. And I am everything.
The imagery of this teaching is beautiful. Whenever I hear it, I imagine an old person reaching into her pocket to draw on a softened, torn, and yellowed paper. I see a weathered old thumb gently rubbing the same edges of the remnants of paper she has touched for many years. I imagine that the first quote – the world was created for my sake – as having been drawn on many more times than “dust of the earth.” I imagine this sweet old woman has had to remind herself many times over her life that she was worthy and important. She needed encouragement many more times than humility.
When I imagine taking this practice on for myself, however, I think of something much more permanent and prominent than little pieces of paper. I imagine these teachings stitched into a pair of leather cuffs, painted onto bangle bracelets, and engraved into silver rings. I imagine these little reminders like bindings on my hands where I can remember them at all times, even when I forget to check – maybe especially when I forget to check. On one hand: humility. The other: encouragement.
It has been my experience that both of these seemingly opposing perspectives live in perfect tension and truth. In my time on this Earth, I’ve seen that I’m absolutely nothing and also that I’m absolutely everything. They are both true. All the time.
Encouragement: At the Center of a Tiny Universe
There have been oh so many times when I’ve had morbid daydreams of what might happen if I died young. I don’t know where these thoughts come from, but just go with me for a moment here. In these horrible day-mares, I quickly realize how devastated my close friends and family would be. Does that sound arrogant? It shouldn’t. It is a truth for almost all of us. There is a very small world in which each of us is at the very center. The whole of this teeny tiny world exists in a tight web centered around one person. Its whole existence is just for this one person. It was created for this one person. It is a tiny little web of love that will unravel without its center.
Humility: But Just a Speck of Dust
And it’s not hard to think of examples of being but dust of earth. We are always nothing. There are billions of people alive on this planet right now who do not and will never know who I am. In centuries from now, it is likely that my entire existence will be completely forgotten from the human race. Eventually, there will be no human beings left on Earth at all. The planet will live on in some form but we will all be gone, just simply dust. Our lifetimes are less than a second on the timeline of the Universe’s history.
We are everything. And we are nothing. All of the time.
We are nothing, absolutely nothing. And to our teeny tiny little webs, we are everything.
I have found that the reminder of this paradox helps to make me feel purposeful. I can choose to focus on what is important to my little web because, to the grand universe, I am but dust. Because I am no artist or jewelry maker, I will imagine the cuffs around my wrists as semi-permanent reminders of this little tightrope we all walk.
Ordinary Days, Meaningful Life is a labor of love geared toward working moms ready to embrace the chaos and find meaning in it. If you found this post meaningful, please share it with someone you think would enjoy it too! I’d love to stay in touch with you! Leave a comment below, contact me, or sign up for the mailing list. I can’t wait to hear from you!