On the Happiness of Being Little

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By Peter Browning
Chaplain, Professor of Philosophy & Religion

Dr. Peter BrowningOn the third floor of Pearsons Hall, tucked away in the suite of offices associated with the departments of English and Languages, is a little treasure called the Tiny Arts and Letters Gallery curated by professor Jo Van Arkel. In the past two years, this gallery – a 3-by-2.5-foot area – has featured the miniature paintings, pottery and paper designs of local artists. Michael Myers showcased his collection of little landscape paintings of Spring eld hangouts. Carla Stine produced an exhibit of miniature paintings, collages and sculptures in the style of a French salon. Mary Moore displayed beautiful ceramic pieces. And Marian Stahl Chamberlain drew sketches of faculty from behavioral sciences professor Vickie Luttrell and French professor Cathy Blunk to Maurizio Sabini in architecture and Albert Korir in chemistry.

On the wall, next to this little gallery and just outside of my office is a quote by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk: “…We cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it, we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the being God gave us and seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves. It is, therefore, a very great thing to be little, which is to say: to be ourselves.”

What is the path to happiness? Our culture has no trouble answering: It is to become famous and make a lot of money. However, I would argue Merton is right and the “little” nature of the Drury University education is exactly what is needed at this time.

On the virtue of going small

Every day, I walk into my office and look up to the bookshelf which faces my desk to see a framed photograph of an old friend, Marilyn Garrett.

Marilyn was the executive director of the Community Alliance for Compassionate Care at the End of Life. Below her picture is a quotation from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” My friend died in 2010, but her little efforts leading a small group continue to reverberate through this community, including benefits to the terminally ill which they likely will never know.

Without realizing it, she embodied the secret to Drury’s new Fusion curriculum. What is fusion? Margaret Rouse explains nuclear fusion as “an atomic reaction in which multiple atoms combine to create a single, more massive atom. The resulting atom has a slightly smaller mass than the sum of the masses of the original atoms. The difference in mass is released in the form of energy during the reaction…” It turns out going small packs a punch.

Sadly, the fame culture does not generate a lot of energy or happiness. People who spend inordinate amounts of time comparing themselves to the rich and famous are often less content, more frustrated and less hopeful. But when they begin to focus on the energy of the little lives they actually live in – small communities such as Drury – everything changes.

Albert Einstein once said there are two ways to live our lives: One way is to see nothing as miraculous, the other is to see everything as miraculous. My hope is for our Drury graduates to spend their lifetimes seeing the world through that second lens – a much happier and fulfilling way to be.

Why is a small university education so nurturing of happy energy? It’s because it’s not just focused on training for a job; it is about the more challenging goal of forming people in ways that nurture a lifetime of rewarding labor and meaningful contribution. A Drury Fusion education teaches us three lessons: Our little daily habits matter, we each have a gift to give and we need one another.

One of the joys of being a professor is seeing how students arrive with one set of habits and leave with another. One of my favorite students showed up as a seasoned athlete who hadn’t been able to transfer the discipline of sports to the classroom. That especially showed up in paper writing. Only after several semesters did this Drury Panther realize good papers were not just a matter of luck or innate ability. They involve reading materials, taking text notes, constructing outlines, interacting with those notes and then going through multiple revisions. When this person graduated, the individual had a whole new set of habits which meant star performance not only on the eld, but also in a career and life. I will never forget how happy he was at his graduation party because he knew he had become a new person with a new set of habits Aristotle would call virtues.

Happiness is also about recognizing our own individual gifts. With our new mentoring program in the Robert and Mary Cox Compass Center, we hope to allow young persons to find their gifts, explore them and make them even stronger. I recently saw the transformation in a student who came in taking courses which were not that person’s passion and then finding the right department and major. Sorrow went to pure joy in a matter of months. The positive psychologist Martin Seligman says the key to happiness is finding our signature strengths – not someone else’s – and then applying them in pursuit of meaning and in service to others.

In the past two years, I have seen that joy in the faces of students in the Matthew 25 Project who have served poorer children in the neighborhood around Drury. I’ve also seen it in students who have taken a mission trip. At a Life Talks Luncheon just months ago, freshman Keaton Garrett shared about his trip to Africa and the meeting with a little boy that changed his life. He promised that child he would pay for his college education after the child grew up and Keaton finished medical school. The telling of this story was a miracle to behold. The enacting of the commitment will be even more life-changing.

Finally, real joy comes in community. The hands-on part of our new curriculum isn’t just about getting people to roll up their sleeves and dig into exciting projects – it’s about teamwork. When we build o of one another’s strengths, we go farther and the tasks become easier. That’s why more and more classes involve a group project. Whether it’s a software development effort, a plan to tackle a local environmental issue such as recycling or the design of a tiny house for a homeless person in the city’s new Eden Village, these projects bring us together.

Like the process of fusion itself, the choice to live fully right now, making our own little contributions, is the catalyst for reactions which energize us in ways that transform the world. Whether the results are local, regional, national or beyond, they matter. Rather than yearning to be someone famous, we become the persons we were meant to be. Merton is right: “It is a very great thing to be little, which is to say: to be ourselves.”


The print edition erroneously labeled Jo Van Arkel as a behavioral sciences professor. She is a professor of English and creative writing.