A Sense of Proportion

By Alison Baker

If you have ever watched ants, you must have been struck by their earnest and purposeful behavior. Here, one summons four or five others to his aid and, with stupendous concerted effort, they lug away a morsel to their larder -- a crumb dropped from the sandwich of a god, a being too big to be seen, too diffuse to be sensed.

During World War II in China, we used to listen to news from the other side of the earth, relayed from New Delhi in the night, keeping the sound very low for fear of being caught. The knot we all had in our middle would ache with the intensity of stress. You got used to living with it because it never quite went away, and it served to supply adrenaline in tight situations when you needed all your wits.

A strange thing would sometimes happen, as though a telescope had been abruptly reversed: the worldwide holocaust would suddenly turn into a tempest in a teacup. The words of the announcer would begin to sound contrived, as if he were reciting a rather preposterous tale of science fiction; battles and invasions seemed reduced to a petty "land of counterpane" proportion, and for a minute the grim desperation became the laughable product of a morbid fantasy.

It was real enough, of course. We all knew that. But the momentary vision of a larger perspective had loosened the knot just a little and brought a wholesome laugh or near-laugh. We all tend to take ourselves too seriously. Even in "normal" times, when disaster does not hang on a careless word or glance, we have ways of making ourselves fearful or unhappy. If we have nothing greater to ruffle a placid life, a broken fingernail can be a major annoyance, a mislaid ticket or a traffic jam become a tragedy. It seems as if man is determined to suffer with or without adequate cause. And what is adequate cause for one may be trivial to another; sometimes it takes an upheaval to stir us from a torpid indifference. One wise man observed that all events have the same impact; it is we who react differently, according to our character and vision. This may explain the self-sacrifice that makes one man a hero while his companion looks on with amazement. Their sense of proportion is different.

All of our living takes place in the consciousness. People have been known to sleep through an air raid unperturbed who, at another time, may agonize over some wholly imaginary eventuality. Circumstances provide only one of the mechanisms which trigger our awareness; we then select one from a wide range of possible reactions. This selection appears to be the crucial factor which determines whether the lesson is learned or whether further experience is required in that area of thought. As we mature in humanness, we doubtless run the gamut of responses, from carefree ignorance, through varying intensities of involvement, until, through long ages of experience we learn to place things in their correct proportions. As we gain a larger, more universal view, we approach closer to the equanimity which is the hallmark of the gods and loosen the bonds that hold us captive in a smaller frame.

We seem to be bound by strands of affinity in many areas. The grosser bonds gradually give way, as we surmount our more obvious limitations, only to be replaced by more subtle ties: ties of egoism, tenuous traps we weave for ourselves without being fully aware of their tenacity. Little by little these too must cede, only to be replaced by ever finer strands. The truth-seeker gradually transfers his concern from the search for pleasure to the search for reality: the needs of yesteryear become the temptations of today; these in time lose their appeal in a willing renunciation come tomorrow. Thus the man slowly frees his spirit from restraints. His separate existence blends into the purpose of the whole, until at last the very self is forfeited, the final gossamer thread is snapped. The man is Buddha.

Nothing is forced, no stage of growth unsought or unnatural. Drawn ever onward by our natural attractions, we leave each phase as imperceptibly as the child grows to maturity, "putting aside childish things" and gaining ever greater vision. As we grow, we can smile indulgently at our former preoccupation with small matters that once seemed of such momentous importance. It is good, then, to remember that our vantage point will duly take its place in the long procession of the past, that our current greatness will one day seem as quaintly moving as the labors of the ants at our feet.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, February 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Theosophical University Press)

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