Pettiness or Profundity
In a reading for class I hit a line in Kathleen Norris’ book, The Cloister Walk, that struck a chord in me. I know I had read the passage before, but somehow it never hit me like it did this time. It is in a chapter Norris calls, “Generations.” The chapter talks about how there are generations of monks within a monastery, just like there can be generations within a family. I never thought about that, but it rings true.
Norris begins a paragraph with these words. “Monastic storytelling is a form of gossip, and like the best gossip, it often serves a moral purpose.” I had to laugh at that thought. Most people I know probably do gossip (as I confess to doing on occasion), but probably most of us would deny that we do it! Norris then moves on to indicate there are some dangers in the monastic life. And I don’t doubt that. Then she writes the line that I very much liked. Norris says, “Monks and nuns are not all sweetness and light---they’re ordinary human beings---and I’ve been told by Benedictines that one of the greatest dangers in monastic life is to succumb to pettiness.”
As you probably know, pettiness is being preoccupied with the little things in life. To be petty is to be concerned with the narrow or the unimportant things in our lives. It is to be so preoccupied that we miss the bigger picture and the important things in life. To be petty is like clutching the penny when we could have had the dollar! Once more, I wish I could say that I don’t know a thing about being petty, but that would be a lie.
I can best understand pettiness when I relate it to another issue. To be specific, my pettiness is probably related to my ego. My ego is usually revealed in the pronouns, “I” and “me.” Of course, you cannot assume everything about the ego is bad. It is appropriate to think about things like, “I should take care of myself.” Self-care is certainly important. And it would be better if more of us did self-care well. So not all ego focus is bad.
But ego focus can be less than good or appropriate. I typically get at this less-than-good aspect of the ego when I realize I am being egocentric. Fairly early in life I would hear someone say, “Oh, he is so egocentric!” A comparable statement would be something like, “Oh, I just wish she would get over herself!” To be egocentric is to think the world revolves around me. Put more literally, I am the center of the world---ego-centered or egocentric. To be egocentric says that I am the most important---or, perhaps, the only important one. You don’t count!
If pettiness is a less than desirable characteristic, how can we get beyond or around it? That is a spiritual question and deserves a spiritual answer. In a word I believe we can get over being petty when we learn to be profound. Let me be clear how I am using the term, profound. To be profound is in one sense intellectual. But it is not intellectual in the sense of IQ. Some of us have average IQs and others may be a genius. Allow me to coin a term. Profundity is more a measure of PQ: profundity quotient.
PQ probably has more to do with wisdom, not simply intellectual IQ. We all know the high IQ type, who really is an idiot in real life. A profound person is someone who always seems to have an answer, a suggestion, or even “opening” into a better way. The profound person often has the insight into the big picture and just the right approach to make things different or better.
Indeed, the idea of insight is a chief characteristic of the profound person. Profundity strikes us as so insightful or perceptive. When someone says something profound, I am left thinking, “how did you come to know that?” In this sense Jesus and the Buddha were really profound human beings. No one would describe them as petty! I am pretty convinced those true followers of Jesus or the Buddha, as well as the true Jews and Hindus and others, are not petty either. I am sure that any true believer who “gets it,” cannot possibly be petty any longer. To become a believer is, at the same time, to become a doer. We give up our petty ways and enroll in the “life of profundity” program.
Finally, I am confident that profound people are deep people---or are on the way to becoming deep people. Of course, this suggests that petty people are shallow people. They probably don’t think of themselves that way (why would anyone who is egocentric think he or she is shallow!). But I would argue all egocentric people and behavior is ultimately shallow.
If it can only be “me,” then there is no place for “we.” I think profundity is too big, too deep, for just me. Profundity is big-picture insight. Egocentric---just-me thinking---cannot possibly be big-picture. But now comes the trick---the spiritual trick.
Profundity is not simply something to know. Profundity is something to be and to do. That is the spiritual part. The spiritual part is learning to be profound and, then, doing my life profoundly. That is my choice and my chore. Christians call it discipleship. Jesus says, “Follow me.” Choosing the chore of following him is profound!