Monday, December 5, 2011

Contemplating the Big Picture

It frustrates many to do that. When done right it produces understanding and knowledge of what must be done. But what must be done is puny, over against that picture, unlikely to have any effect. What must be done turns out to be the usual daily grind done right with a cheerful attitude, whereas the “Big Picture,” to be changed in any way, appears to require gigantic deeds of transformation. But understanding of that picture teaches that that can’t actually be done. “Yes, yes, yes!” cries the impatient activist, “but if we could just get people to back us…” But that, in turn, suggests that we should see “people” in the aggregate, and, once more, the Big Picture is sobering. That reminds me of The Little Duck.

That was a poem published by Donald Babcock in The New Yorker on October 4, 1947. Babcock died in 1986, hence his poem, part of which hangs in a frame on one of our walls, is still under copyright until 2056, thus I can’t quote it. But it deals with a little duck “riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf, and he cuddles in the swells.” A great heaving moves the Atlantic, but it does not bother the little duck. “He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic,” Babcock tells us, ignorant of the ocean’s vastness but aware of it. “He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity—which it is.” Babcock then ends by saying:

I like the little duck.
He doesn’t know much.
But he has religion.

So that’s what contemplating the Big Picture really is. To have religion. It’s humbling, is what it is. Most people don’t want to be a little duck. They dream, instead, of being Conan the Barbarian.


  1. Interesting poem, indeed. I shall look it up.

  2. Good luck, Montag. Here is a link:

    Every quote of an portion of this poem on the web, oddly, (or not so oddly if they all crib from one another) is that they leave out some lines. Here they are:

    He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha, meditating under the Bo Tree,
    But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher.
    He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.

    In our culture such images as mandarins, the Buddha, and philosophers (for crying out loud) don't fit pop culture...


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