Sometimes the obstacles in our life feel overwhelming. Too gargantuan to every get past. And so we resign ourselves to standing still. Not moving forward lest we fail in our attempts. Yet I recently rediscovered the idea of Kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of using incremental changes to achieve huge outcomes.
Immediately two different scenarios sprung to mind. One was a White Stripes song called Little Acorn. This song has a mixed reception with the public, I think because of the spoken word at the start. Apparently Jack White was recording a piano track on old reel to reel tapes and this inspirational story was superimposed on his music. He loved it so much he wrote a whole song around it.
The actual story comes from Mort Crim, a Detroit anchorman who would give brief morality tales. The text is shown below:
When problems overwhelm us and sadness smothers us, where do we find the will and the courage to continue? Well, the answer may come in the caring voice of a friend, a chance encounter with a book, or from a personal faith. For Janet, help came from her faith, but it also came from a squirrel. Shortly after her divorce, Janet lost her father, then she lost her job. She had mounting money problems. But Janet not only survived, she worked her way out of despondency, and now she says life is good again. How could this happen? She told me that late one Autumn day, when she was at her lowest, she watched a squirrel storing up nuts for the winter. One at a time, he would take them to the nest, and she thought, “If that squirrel can take care of himself, with the harsh winter coming on, so can I. Once I broke my problems into small pieces, I was able to carry them, just like those acorns, one at a time.”
This idea of breaking your problems apart into small pieces is exactly what Kaizen expounds. It sometimes feels like moving a mountain shovelful by shovelful. But over time, the mountain will get smaller. And soon it won’t seem like such an insurmountable problem.
I had to face my own mountain with art. I loved the idea of drawing, but the thought of sitting down and creating something out of pencil and pen terrified me. I had no idea what to draw and everything that came out of me looked awful.
So I started small. Writing was something I knew how to do, so I penned these Mental Kitchen articles almost as an excuse to get me to draw something. When I lowered the expectations (no longer expecting to produce a grand piece of Art with a capital A), I was able to create. This led to other dabbling in art and now, a year later, I’m working in short comic strips. Something I’d dreamed of but never thought I could ever achieve.
However, the idea for this post didn’t come from The White Stripes (that was my wife’s suggestion). It came when I chanced upon my collection of Word Jazz by Ken Nordine. If you’ve never experienced his jazz poems, you are truly in for a treat. Rarely are they longer than a few minutes. And they’re not as pretentious as say Jack Keorac or the other Beat poets.
There’s one that sticks with me. It’s called “The Bullfighter”. I scoured the Internet for a transcription of the lyrics and could find none. So I simply listened to Ken Nordine read his poem and transcribed it.
The bullfighter That’s what I wanted to be Yeah All my life I’ve dreamed of fighting the bull. From earliest childhood I dreamed of fighting the bull At first I would fight the very small bull Later on I would fight the bigger bull But then I went into the arena with the biggest bull of all and I was afraid I couldn’t fight the biggest bull because I know the biggest bull is inside me there is too much bull
The words don’t do it justice. Click over to YouTube to hear the Nordine imbue the words with resonate life.
I seriously doubt that Mr. Nordine was advocating actual bullfighting. It’s the same idea as the squirrel collecting his nuts. In order to take on those colossal obstacles in your life (the biggest bulls), you must start with the smaller problems (the little bulls).
Yet what I love about Nordine’s poem, that so few positivity mantas miss, is the fear. When you go up against your biggest challenges, you quake in your boots. Why? Because you are delving down into the essence of who you are. The biggest bull is inside you.
And there is too much bull. Which maybe means you can easily laugh it off. Because when we philosophize too much, we’re just piling on more and more bullshit.
So start with acorns or tiny bulls. Whatever it takes to get you going.