Dorothea Brooke of “Middlemarch”, written by George Elliot, longs to make a difference. Every part of her internal working is meant for bigger things. She is a more sophisticated version of “Scuffy the Tugboat,” a Golden Books story in which a little red toy tugboat is dissatisfied with his toyshop and bathtub existence.
“I was meant for greater things,”he sulks.
One day he finds the opportunity to do what he feels meant to do. The accommodating man with the polka dot tie who runs the toyshop takes Scuffy and his son to the babbling brook. Scuffy moves quickly and finds himself on an adventure.
He is excited and proud, then frightened and lonely. In the end, he finds that maybe the biggest adventures were not what he was meant for, and he finds contentment back in the bathtub and domesticity.
What does it actually mean to be meant to do great things?
Are great things only the big visible things that go viral on social media, make it to the news and front pages, making good stuff for a memoir? Some of these great things change the world, change the course of history, change lives. But the world makes a poor witness and as soon as her attention is turned, the spotlight shifts and the next big story hits the front page.
Perhaps greatness is the simple act of giving a child a beautiful plumb-colored snapdragon from the garden they are not usually allowed to pick from because the flowers are bound to be sold in bouquets. The child carries the flower around until the buds fall off, he cries, and you give him another, brightening his world once more. The joy is deep but lasts only as long as that little bloom.
Is it a meal ready on the table for a hardworking husband? Is it the car unexpectedly filled up with gas-saving a trip later that day? Is it picking out a book for a friend, or sending an Instagram photo with a caption you know would make them laugh?
Dorothea married Mr. Casaubon, a character repeatedly described as “dried up” in comparison to her youthful vitality and beauty. She marries him in the hope and dream of being introduced to the world of great things, where she can do a great work, effect a great difference. She quickly finds herself disappointed and disillusioned, outside whatever mechanism drives and inspires him. In a modern world, she likely would leave him behind to look for her path to greatness.
Faithful, she remains, full of trust that her path will reveal itself in her given circumstances, circumstances she chose for herself. Elliot presents a particular problem for the woman in this period. Dorothea makes one decision, to marry the man, and she must wait patiently before anything can change. She is, for the most part, powerless in her circumstances. This is contrasted with another character, Dr. Lydgate, who, as a man, is in a position to make decisions professionally and personally and, even after a disappointing marriage, can choose what step he will take next.
What do they do with their opportunities?
What does Scuffy do? The key feature is that Dorothea keeps her vision. Her desire is not entirely set on one dream, as Lydgate’s was of professional greatness. Thus her desire can adapt. It is not the great thing itself, but to make a difference. To make a difference in the world can be as entirely intimate as offering a flower to a child, or as global as building a hospital.
The greatness comes from pouring oneself out, in offering what one has at his disposal for the good of another, of looking for opportunities to give, and then giving.
I tell my children that virtue is practiced in the small things so that when the big moments arise, we have trained ourselves to either do good or avoid evil. Greatness works similarly. So whether a housewife outside a rural town or a doctor in a big city, when we take our circumstances for what they, work with them in that sphere without resentment or distraction, keeping our eyes open and our will ready to serve, the great moments come. And I venture to say, they’ll be more than we realize and effect a greater difference in those around us than we ever could have imagined.
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.