No Great Things

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The day I rediscovered Mother Teresa's words "We can do no great things-only small things, with great love," the so-called war on terror had just cranked up after 9-11, and the administration was attempting to dignify the call to violence with rhetoric so over the top it abrogated divine authority-Operation Infinite Justice, for example. What a grounded, utterly human antidote her words were. And what a relief! Instead of waking each morning and defining myself as an impotent war protester, I started waking up and thinking, "Okay. What small thing can I do today with love?"

Mother's advice gave me permission to do stuff like play with my kids and go fishing again. I actually live her advice when I fish. No joke. On big Montana trout rivers, you often see fly fishers trying to do great things by fishing heroically, making great long casts out into the giant flow as if they're thinking Operation Infinite Trout! But we can do no great things. So those of us who like to actually catch trout scarcely glance at the vast flow. Instead we parse the river, slicing off a tiny ribbon known as a feeding lane, where you target a single trout repeatedly rising. In huge western rivers, three or four hundred feet across, I'm talking about a ribbon six inches in width. Yet this ribbon, believe me, is where all the rising trout get hooked.

A fly-fisherly strategy for those who yearn to make a difference: Every morning, look for "ribbons." One small thing you sense could be done with full-on attentiveness and love. And after you finish it, look for another. Ad infinitum.

I have no faith in any kind of political party, left, right, or centrist. I have boundless faith in love. In keeping with this faith, the only spiritually responsible way I know to be a citizen, artist, or activist is by giving little or no thought to things such as saving the planet, achieving world peace, or stopping greed. Great things tend to be undoable things. Small things, lovingly done, are always within our reach.

Politics may be love's opposite. Politics are about such great things that they sometimes end up being about nothing. Politics, and increasingly the media, attempt the violent manipulation of human opinion. But no climate of mere opinion is earnest enough, or even embodied enough, to answer our biological and spiritual predicament from moment to moment in daily life.

The natural systems and elemental forces that give us our bodies and lives are rife with simple integrity and sincerity of purpose. The maneuverings of political factions blind us to this integrity, or make us think we can fool it. But you can't use a glib skit and laugh track to joke a polar ice cap into not melting. You can't hire a PR firm to fast-talk radioactivity out of nuclear waste. Watch a mated pair of Bullock's Orioles build their incredible hanging nest not in the thirty seconds it takes to brainwash a voter, but in the days and days needed to build it properly. Watch a female salmon turn her body into a shovel and beat it into the stone bed of a high mountain stream, smashing aside rock not for the quarter-hour it takes a commentator to make a string of partisan wisecracks, but for the three or four arduous nights and days it takes to build a redd that can house and protect living progeny. There is no disingenuous bullshitting in the life-giving operations of nature, nothing snide, nothing needlessly clever. . . .

For which reason I'm trying to live and celebrate a dead-earnest, though far from humorless, Mother Teresian politics of no politics. I am focusing on one small thing after another, driven, each time, by the greatest possible love.

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Curriculum Questions

1. After encountering Mother Teresa's words, Duncan describes a change in his own mindset: "Instead of waking each morning and defining myself as an impotent war protester, I started waking up and thinking, ‘Okay. What small thing can I do today with love?'" Have you experienced a similar epiphany that changed how you saw the world and your role in it? If so, describe your defining moment(s).


2. Duncan describes a "fly-fisherly strategy for those who yearn to make a difference." Rather than being overwhelmed by the whole, he says to look for one individual ribbon after another, "one small thing you sense could be done with full-on attentiveness and love." Drawing upon Duncan's "fly-fisherly strategy," what are one or two specific things you can do to ‘parse the river' in your life? In your local or global community?


3. Duncan calls politics "love's opposite." Do you agree or disagree with his assessment? In "Come to the Table," Aaron Ausland encourages us not to shy away from our own position at "The Negotiation Table." Can one practice "politics" in a loving manner? What do you deduce Duncan might answer? Ausland?

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David James Duncan is the best-selling author of The River Why and The Brothers K, as well as several works of nonfiction, including the 2006 essay collection God Laughs and Plays. David has spoken all over the U.S. on wilderness and rivers, literary and imaginative freedom, the irreplaceable importance of wild salmon, the pathos of fly-fishing, and on the writing life, the nonmonastic contemplative life, and the nonreligious literature of faith. The Krista Foundation was honored to host Duncan as their keynote speaker at the 2003 conference, and he is a special contributor to The Global Citizen. David lives with his wife, the sculptor Adrian Arleo, and their family on a western Montana trout stream.


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