Recently, my husband and I were looking at our baby pictures. Although we each found those “special” features in each other’s photos, we were generally the same as most other newborns: a little bit ugly. I looked ready to box the photographer with one eye opened and purple fists clenched close to my face. My husband’s head was a little dented and he was curled up tight like a ball, as if the weave of hands, feet, legs, and arms could protect the rest of him from the strange, strange world he had just entered.
He wasn’t the first newborn with a propensity to curl up. In fact, the very posture of babies fresh out of the womb mimicks the world from which they come—a small space, a safe and comfortable place. Eventually they learn to unfurl, but not without at least a solid attempt at staying cramped up in their invisible cocoon. What they do not realize, of course, is that they will never return to the place they had left. Not only would it be impossible, but it would also be unreasonable. They had been born.
Unlike newborn babies, as we grow older we start to resist small spaces because they are too tight. We’ve outgrown them. In fact, when we feel too confined by our circumstances in life, we tend to panic a little bit and usually fight with all our energy to escape the trap, no matter what the cost. This could be a situation that we have brought upon ourselves—like we can’t pay our bills because we spent too much on Christmas presents. Or else it could be a situation that fell upon us—somebody we love has been diagnosed with cancer, or we have to bail out our son because he was caught driving drunk. Regardless of how we get there, the biggest challenge is learning how live there, especially if we have no reasonable alternative to escape.
Novelist George Eliot captured the feelings of living in a small space in her novel Daniel Deronda. In her book, Gwendolen Harleth, a beautiful spoiled child, is faced with the reality of having to become a governess when her family falls on hard times. She had always seen herself as better than that: a singer on a stage or a dignified member of society at the very least. She had been dealt a situation that was beyond her control and was being forced into a life she had not chosen. Had there been anything she could have done to escape, Gwendolen would have done it.
In fact, she was presented with a way of escape: a marriage proposal from Henleigh Grancourt, a high-class gentleman who was to inherit all of his uncle’s estate. Unfortunately, Gwendolen knew she shouldn’t marry him because he had promised to marry another woman with whom he had four children. Still, she wanted an escape from her small space, so she married him anyway. What she failed to see at the time was that she was marrying a cruel man, and she had only transferred herself from one small space to another.
The problem we often face is we are unwilling to embrace a situation that seems beneath us. After all, we have established a precedent for how we should live, and we want to avoid falling beneath that line. I went through this inner struggle when I moved from Wisconsin to Louisiana and went from teaching Advanced Placement English to remedial English at the community college. I felt doomed for digression, fated to teach parts of speech rather than quoting Shakespeare and speaking wittingly in puns. I had to repent of my shortsightedness in the end, however, because I can see now that the Lord placed me in that community college—that small space—for a reason. My eyes were opened to intelligent but disadvantaged students who already had families and were filled with a passion to do something better with their lives. What I failed to realize was that I had not walked into a place of confinement that might smother me; instead, I was forced to grow up in a different way.
It is possible to live within the confines of a small space, but we must be willing to change, or at least to entertain the idea that we can be changed by what we are experiencing.