"He must increase; I must decrease." John 3:30
Did you ever see that wonderful black-and-white movie from the 1950s, "The Incredible Shrinking Man"? The hero, Scott Carey, blond and tall, is sailing his boat in the ocean beneath an infinite sky. Suddenly a mist appears and covers him with a radioactive dust. Slowly, he goes from 6 feet to 3 feet to 3 inches to infinitesimal.
At the end of the movie, this dot of a man is walking in his garden through blades of grass that are taller than trees, among towering flowers that look like planets and suns, and sailing on a twig over a puddle as large as a lake. Suddenly, Carey sees. He is at home in the universe! Everything looks different but God is everywhere. We hear his inner voice:
So close -- the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet -- like the closing of a gigantic circle.
I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night.
From our sister publication: A Place to Call Home, a new series focusing on women religious helping people who are homeless. Read more
And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends is man's conception, not nature's. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!
The story is a parable of our inevitable diminishment. Life shrinks each of us. We find ourselves only when we lose ourselves. It isn't easy.
We spend much of our lives trying to be somebody. A self-made man. A woman who has it all. It's what we are taught: to get ahead, make money, get people to like us, win their respect. The salesman Willie Loman teaches his sons that it's not enough to be liked -- you have to be well liked.
Sometimes we get everything upside down. The "Bronx Tale" gangster Sonny teaches 9-year-old Calogero that it's nice to be loved but better to be feared: "Fear lasts longer than love."
Sometimes we mistake being a victim for a victor. A kick in the pants is as good as a pat on the back. They're two sides of the same coin. Both swell our ego, and we learn the hard way that it's easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for someone with a big head to enter the kingdom of heaven.
We have to unlearn everything we've learned before we can learn what we are really here for. If we don't choose gratitude over envy, peace over pleasure, love over fear, life will diminish our ego with its own surprises.
Scott Carey is a nice guy on top of the world. But something happens, as it always does, and before you know it he has to hide in a doll house to escape the enormous claws of a cat. He falls through a floor heater into the basement and has to brandish a pin to duel a spider.
Only when he becomes a dot and escapes through a miniscule space in a window screen does Scott abandon his sense of personal power and realize what he never experienced as a master of the universe: "the peace of God that surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7). Jesus taught the opposite of what the world teaches: Only as we lose interest in our dream, or nightmare, of selfhood do we become free and the perfect self that God created (Matthew 10:39).
We learn, often the hard way, that every choice we make is a chance to find ourselves in God or lose ourselves in a game of pretend. Becoming a priest or religious is an all or nothing proposition: serve others in the name of Jesus continuously, or dry up and play make-believe. Being married and having children presents not many but one continuous choice: give without expectation, or suffer the consequences. Taking care of a parent or spouse is about praying always without thinking about it, or about feeling sorry for ourselves.
When we choose to be here for God -- everywhere, always love, compassion and wisdom -- our ego shrinks without pain and our work becomes effortless. The more we choose to be here for ourselves, the greater our ego swells and the rest of the body, physical and mystical, suffers. Either way, life says to us: You will become an incredible shrinking man.
Sure, it's hard out here for an incredible shrinking man. But it gets easier. The only thing that hurts is shrinking away from it.
[Michael Leach shepherds Soul Seeing columns for NCR and books for Orbis Books.]