The Big Thing: Going Beyond the Challenge

There are grander terms than challenges and hurdles, and we must come to these. These are mountain terms, seafaring terms, acrobatic terms, martial terms. I want The Big Thing, and it has nothing to do with the weak-kneed ‘challenge at work’ or ‘minor obstacle I’m facing at home.’

What is The Big Thing? It can hardly be said, but it exceeds by a million the mere challenge, test, performance, or contest. What can be said is that The Big Thing is that which calls me to explode with graceful power. Until then, I wait for The Big Thing like a lion gnawing at its cage, like a warrior sharpening his weapons, like a sailor watching for the sea winds to miraculously pick up, like a great athlete awaiting the arrival of his fiercest opponent. The Big Thing has the force to turn me upside down, rip me apart, outstrip me, outdo me. Maybe it will show me how very wrong I’ve been–and with the delight of  heathen! Maybe it will call me a big fool, and I will listen while biting my fierce, bleeding lips. Maybe it will savage before it saves me.

One thing is for sure: The Big Thing requires nothing less than that one risk everything. (Arab Proverb: ‘A man who has never risked everything is a poor man.’) Another thing is equally for sure: The Big Thing is that which demands that one become tough enough to meet it.

Why would The Big Thing call us today? Because, as Luc Ferry lucidly argues in What is the Good Life? and as Charles Taylor has convincingly shown in Sources of the Self, modernity is the time in which daily life finally was given its dues. Daily life, bourgeois life, ordinary life was finally affirmed on its own! Astonishing moment! After the Death of God, any utterances of ‘beyond’ or ‘elsewhere’ have become suspect, leaving daily life to be ‘all there is.’ And individuals have grown up unthinkingly affirming mere work (career) and everyday love (family). Amazing!

And not enough by a long shot!

Romantics (for Taylor) and bohemians (for Ferry) are those who have most dramatically felt the flatness, ennui, and stultification of daily life. What is it in the end but empty repetition? What is it but–now speak Peter Sloterdijk–ordinariness? Without verticality, without anchoring themselves to what is higher, human beings get crushed under the burden of washing dishes, doing laundry, and scheduling brunches. Platitudes kill our spirits, cliches attenuate us, habits and routines (unlike rigorous practices) dissipate our thumos. Daily life is not bearable for the would-be spirited, hearty creature.

Let The Big Thing stand in for the flight from ordinariness into the expansiveness of the extraordinary. Let it be what calls us, only to break us. Let it be what barks orders at us, screams and demeans us, that which raises us beyond our lazinesses, our complacencies, our we’re-doing-just-fine-as-is lives. One must be fed up with the lethargy and general slackness of niceness and easiness.

In the past, The Big Thing was war (Homer), or it was the call to the divine (Christian mysticism), or the call to the revolution (Marxism). My Big Thing and yours–what will it be? I don’t know, but let it come already! My powers, after long practice and readying in the desert, are primed to be recruited and then expressed not in blind fury but in wise grace.