Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | February 11, 2010

Thinking Small

Thinking small would be one thing if that’s the way we started out.

Friends of mine just had their third child. My eldest son lives near them. It has been years since he’s seen a newborn. What struck him most about the beautiful little girl was how big her eyes are and how they soak everything in. When her mother or father interacts with her, she focuses and responds. Otherwise, she calmly receives an uncensored flow of information through those wide eyes. She sees everything. Her possibilities are endless.

What were you going to be when you grew up? I was 14 years old at Arcadia Public Library reading for a term paper when I decided that question. I don’t remember who I was reading about, but he had affected history in a way that impressed me. I decided then that my life when it ended had to have meant something. I decided that I wasn’t going to live and die without doing something important, something great, with all the idealism and hubris that implies. I’ve spent my time since trying to figure out what is truly important and great and trying to do that, and in the process have become more realistic and a bit more humble. Strange, the places that kind of voyage will take you.

Also strange are the kinds of forces you meet once you set your mind to sail. The intention alone brings backlash. Breezes that once seemed innocuous become adversarial. Shimmer on the water reveals battering waves and currents trying to take you off course. The rigging always, always resists you. It all looks so easy when someone else is skipper. Don’t even think about finding encouragement, much less cooperation or help from most of those around you. Well meaning though they might be, everyone seems to know what is best for you, and it surely doesn’t lie out there across open water. If your destination is unusual, you are on your own. Choose a truly original course? That’s nuts.

That’s about when we ask ourselves if sailing out was really a good idea after all. Are we crazy? No one says it, but everyone quietly asks it, even us. It can be too much. Our horizons can shrink. Our envisioned worlds can implode. Looking back, we euphemize that our bubbles popped. That’s funny. They seemed more real than bubbles before they imploded. I guess they always do.

Some of us answered the craziness question so long ago, we don’t even remember asking it. Now we stand on shore watching those crazy sailors each following his own bubble, and we shake our heads and hope that some day they’ll come to their senses. Solid land, that’s the ticket. On solid land the roads stay put. The houses stay put. The merchants stay put. Pretty much everything stays put apart from considerable effort to move it. We like it that way. We like moving only when we want to. We like knowing where to find things when we want them. We forget that there was a day once when we, too, looked out over the water and wondered what we might find out there, what it would be like to just be out there.

It’s wonderful for me to watch my six sons growing and trying out their own vessels, learning their own ropes, deciding on their own destinations. Not long now and they’ll be off charting their own waters. My six strapping lads, each going in a different direction, just as it should be. Maybe they’ll spend some time in other places, or maybe they’ll come back to their roots and stay ashore where they started. Or maybe they’ll just sail. Six courses to set, six destinations to reach or not as they will. It’s up to them. I’m glad they know that the choices are theirs to make. They see a wide horizon, rather, six wide horizons. They haven’t succumbed to thinking small, and it doesn’t look likely that they will. Thank God.

The forces that make our thinking small are incessant, unrelenting: our pasts, our obligations, our genetics, our capabilities, our ancestry, our peers, our outlooks. All of these are real enough and true enough, but why do they judge us, discourage us, and force us into smaller and smaller spaces? Why don’t they instead encourage us and spur us on, opening our worlds up rather than shutting them down? I doubt that the realities themselves are to blame. After all, thinking small affects what we are going to do next, before the fact, before anything is yet “real” or “true.”

No one in the history of my father’s family attended an institution of higher learning. Many of his relatives didn’t even finish high school, especially in the Old Country, the Ukraine. I’m sure that he confronted the “you can’t do it because no one in your family has done it before” argument many times over. Truth? Myth? He went ahead to get his PhD in genetics anyway. Myth, apparently. That was in the early 1960s, a time when most people thought that genes were dark blue, made by Levi Strauss & Co. I’m still proud of him.

Thinking left to its own devices expands. It must be squeezed to become small. There is certainly no lack of squeezing from every direction. Every thriving business owner knows how many “can’t” demons tried to fence her in with impossibilities. She knows how many failed attempts fed those demons and how crazily obstinate she had to be to keep from throwing in the towel. In the process, truth and myth morphed and changed places. All those demons and all that impossibility turned out to be the foundation for her success.

Every partner in a successful relationship knows that he or she threw in the towel many times. I’m sure that each time there was plenty of truth involved in the throwing in and plenty of myth involved in any hopes for better. Then the next minute or the next day, they turned around and picked the towel back up and gave it one more try, truth and myth both be damned. Crazy. Obstinate. Bubble-chasing fools. Gluttons for punishment. The rest of us were more prudent. We knew that picking that towel back up and trying again was impossible and, by God, that’s the truth. The reality was obvious. Our hearts just refused to admit it. Our hearts fought against letting go. We dug and scraped for any shred to show that it wasn’t true, it wasn’t impossible, that we could, we should try just once more. But the shreds crumbled in our fingers and we tired of the digging and the scraping. Our hopes were myths, after all. Now we accept and live with the truth. It wasn’t meant to be. We did all we could. We’re both better off now. A “truth” that gets shot to hell each time we see her or him again.

Behind every squeeze is a myth. Behind every squeezing myth is a lie. Behind every lie is the fear that makes us listen. Maybe we’ll die if we don’t listen to them, and maybe we’ll live a little longer if we do. Maybe, maybe not. Stubbornly reckless or prudently intimidated or somewhere between, we each make our choices. We can cling to our proof that the impossibilities are real, that our fears are justified. We can also refuse the “prudence” that ratifies fear and realize that lies, not truth, do the intimidating.

There are plenty of myths, but they boil down to the same thing: jump ship, go ashore, find a small, fixed, manageable spot, and then stay put. It’s prudent. It’s safer. It’s easier. But myths don’t change facts. On the other side of that offshore fog is a big, amazing, sometimes cruel world. It’s waiting for us to get out there, hoping that we’ll do something. Something certainly needs to be done. And through small breaks in the lying, intimidating, mythic mist we can see, if we care to look, a few crazy sailors still out there, stubbornly refusing to get off their boats. There aren’t many of them, not nearly enough. Maybe they are just chasing bubbles. But just see how they react if you ask them to come back ashore. That’s my kind of people.

Who knows where my course will take me? I struggle with thought squeezes every day, some large and some small. Sometimes I succumb for a while, but then I open my eyes back up. I hope for good things ahead, but cagey guy that I am, I left myself a fallback position. If all else goes to pot, at least I know that I did one really great thing in my life. Actually, make that six. To them I say…

Bon Voyage, lads! I’ll see you on the water.



  1. Millard that really touched me. That is a gem of an essay that cries out to be published.

    • Hey Dad, thanks! Check it out once more. I made some changes.

  2. Your writing always touches my heart. I always struggled with the question of what do I want to do when I grow up. I was not one to know from early on what my strength would be. I was always interested, and continue to be, in many subjects and careers. I went from corporate to
    Olympics to corporate to Olympics again. I always intended to go to grad school but could never commit to just one direction when so many are interesting.

    You always tug at my heartstrings when you speak of your wife and the love that you obviously still have for her. Also, it is wonderful how much you enjoy the boys. I wish that all fathers could be so proud!

    another wonderful piece!

    • To say my writing touches your heart is the pinnacle for me. I can’t ask for more than that, especially when I think that our hearts are the only real issue. Everything else follows afterward and at a distance. Thank you.

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