The Instinct of Small

Marie Goodwin

As I grow into myself in my middle years, I find that I long for small. It is an insistent presence, never far from my thoughts. This longing asks me to remove clutter and give away what I no longer use. It demands that I create spaces of intimacy, where my children and I can gather to read and cuddle. It speaks to me when I wake in the middle of the night and says, “Go…now…it is urgent! Move to a small place in the woods and live in warm comfort, stepping lightly on the earth.” When I look around me, I see this voice speaking out of my friends’ mouths as well; they want to de-clutter or sell their possessions, leave the city to go back to the land, or perhaps get a lake house for a week in summer. They want to simplify their lives, even if only on vacation; a vacation of pretend simplification. The underlying desire, however, is not pretend or false. It is not a fabrication intended to impress or a filter that attempts to manipulate others’ thoughts about them. It is a deep need.

I have come to feel that it is an instinctual need.

I heard the interior call of instinct at other times in my life: times of crisis or change, times of uncertainty or fear; at the death bed of a loved one; during rites of passage, like marriage. I felt compelled by my instincts the strongest, however, during both my pregnancies, the births, and the subsequent postpartum period. Very much like my desire to return to living with less, these instinctual urges around birth were an ever-present demanding voice within, deciding what I ate, how I cared for my infant, who to trust, and how these little beings were faring under my care. I was reminded of my animal-being like never before in a way that left me almost breathless at times. When I followed my instincts, I felt joy and “in the flow.” When I went against my instincts, however, I felt fear, loss, stress, and anger at betraying myself.

I have betrayed myself by living a complicated and cluttered life. I have failed my instinctual urge to live simply.

I argue here that we have a human instinctual need to live with less. Certainly, our palaeolithic ancestors lived with only what they could carry. Many indigenous people the world over live with few possessions, and what they do have is shared with anyone who is in need in their community. It is logical to think that we carry a biological awareness of “enough” and when that is superseded by a cultural demand to accumulate more than we need, we feel stress and a heaviness of spirit.

Language carries with it clues to this instinct as well. Germanic and Scandinavian languages have a term to signify “cozy comfort, created with very little stuff, that brings family and friends together (or is done alone as self-care) and provides happiness:” Danish has the word hygge, Norwegian uses hyggelig, German has Gemütlich, Scottish uses còsagach (related to the English word “cozy”), and the Swedish have gemytlig and the Dutch use gezellig, both of which are both related to the German term. Romance languages don’t have just one word for this concept, however, leaving one to ask, “Does this instinct only relate to cold weather, Germanic and Scandinavian cultures?” I would argue this is not true, but that the “small instinct” shows up in slightly different ways. I grew up in a warm weather culture, the deep southeastern US. I have traveled extensively in warm and very hot parts of the world, and there are deep traditions of cozy-comfort in these places as well: tea in a shaded-breezy spot with friends, the sound of running water in the distance; the late-afternoon siesta; a late dinner of beautiful food with friends around a table that lasts for hours. The placement of value on small, intimate, special spaces to enjoy simplicity knows no cultural boundary.

I would further argue that if we are to preserve a future for our children, we must begin listening to this instinct, all of us, quite urgently.

We have relegated our knowing to outside experts of all varieties. Life has become so complex and full of decisions that we have relegated some of the most important decisions to the doctor, the Ph.D, the scientist, the biochemical and pharmaceutical pushers, the guru life-coaches. We have scaled up to the extent that we are simply overwhelmed by what is day-to-day in front of us, so we look outside for answers.It is considered normal to do so. So normal, in fact, that the very act of questioning experts often angers people around you. The social pressure to conform and blot out your inner knowing is very strong indeed.

Capitalism’s very foundation is to provide you with (paid) outside decision makers to tell you what to do, to buy, to need, to want. Advertisers tell us where we are lacking and what we need to buy to make it better; doctors tell us if we are sick (or if it is simply all in our head.) We give up our power of birth and parenting, our power to heal ourselves, our power to educate our children within our culture. We’ve given the elderly over to expert care, our dying to experts in burial and ritual. We don’t build our houses anymore, or grow our food, or entertain ourselves, for these areas too require expertise that we have lost. Or given up. Or had stolen from us for profit. We look to others to tell us what to believe, what to think, and how to live. And if we are to reclaim ourselves and our planet, we must reclaim our own experience, develop our own expertise, and listen to ourselves…to our own instincts, our own knowing, our power, in all its infinite variety and creativity. We have streamlined our power into only certain knowledge paths, well-worn and dusty from travel, but those paths lead us to a future that threatens our very existence and all life on this planet. We must strike out new paths, or better yet, find the old over-grown byways that once sustained life on this planet in balance and cooperation with Gaia.

My instincts are telling me that one of these paths we must follow is to return to simplicity.

My instincts are telling me to heal myself, educate my children, grow and preserve my food. My instincts are telling me to give away my stuff, build community, and create spaces where I can sit with myself in the cozy arms of nature and my loved ones. My instincts asks me to find a wooded place and to spend long swaths of time there alone in nature, listening to my inner voice and walking along shaded paths. My instincts urge me…no they insist, they demand, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

I am, however, called to activism. Even in that sphere, my instinctual demand to simplify plays itself out. Simplicity at the community level, the level of everyday activism, asks that we meet our neighbors, re-skill ourselves and others, shop local businesses,create our own energy, and buy and produce local food. By participating in projects such as the Transition Town movement, we help our local community members and leaders to ask where we have grown too big. Where are our resources stretched too thin? Where might we provide for ourselves within the community whenever possible? How can we move back to sharing resources and time with each other to make each other strong in the face of the tremendous changes happening worldwide? Transition Town activists recognize that it is only through returning intimacy to our community relationships that we can see others and be seen in our totality through our gifts, our resources, our needs, and our passions. We reclaim community life as tribal life. And when the crises hit us and our homes hard, as surely they must in the future, that deep knowledge of each other will be the web of support that holds us up and connects us to the whole.

I know others, world-wide, are hearing the call as well. When I look out, I see gathering tribes of people who are activists for small and connected. They study permaculture and regenerative agriculture, moving back to the land and reclaiming their ancestral birthright as producers of their own food and their own lives. I see urban elites giving up their expensive homes, buying land, and living simply. Some give away most of their wealth to others. I see, like in a fun-house mirror, the instinct to return to small through the trendy “tiny house movement,” “voluntary simplicity,” and even the “urban hipsters.” The instinct for small is showing up in the story-telling and poetry slams, the small cafes, and the living-room “salons.” I see families give up their homes, and live in their cars and vans, purposefully, in order to travel and live without financial ties that drain their energy. As our economic systems collapse, the return to local, to the commons, to cooperatives, to sharing — like the Transition Town movement — they are all taking on a life of their own. The small instinct shows up at the end of life as well, in the death with dignity movement, with “death doulas” and in-home hospice care, all of which acknowledge that what we want at the end of life is to return to our instinctual comforts: to be surrounded by loved ones in a familiar, comfortable place.

Our culture had a chimera placed in front of our eyes, temporarily blinding us to our own inner knowing. We squashed our instinctual natures, our animal being, for too long. This collective turning away from our animal wisdom, this shunning of our own selves, is taking down the life-support system of Mother Earth and with it all of the future possibilities for our children and our children’s children. Sitting still is perhaps the most radical thing we can do at this time. Listening to and following our instincts are deeply revolutionary acts. Perhaps our Earth needs nothing more from us than for us to be our animal-selves, giving away our accumulated resources to others in need, and then curling up in our simple house-caves, with our children, a story, and a warm cup of tea by the fire — to be still and small for the living planet and for each other.