Continued from Doing “Very Normal Things” with Gandhi (Part One of Two) here.
In Part One I talked about how 80% of Gandhi’s autobiography is about “Very Normal Things”, including eating, getting dressed, and moving around. Here’s what else he spends most of his autobiography talking about:
Very Normal Thing #4: Housework
Counter to the outsourcing trends of his milieu, Gandhi spends time hand-milling his own grain, starching and ironing his own clothes, and cutting his own hair. He learns how to repair shoes and helps figure out how to spin thread and work the handloom. Gandhi is big on cleanliness; not only does he clean his own latrines, he volunteers to inspect other peoples’ latrines to make sure they’re up to snuff (and sweeps them out if found lacking). And Gandhi even spends a lot of time on interior decoration: first on making his pad swank and deserving of the status of a barrister, later on disposing of all that junk. By the time I got to the end of his story, I was convinced that Gandhi was very handy around the house.
Very Normal Thing #5: Getting Sick and Getting Better
Gandhi variously contracts and recovers from ringworm, dysentery, constipation, headaches, and pleurisy. He is constantly nursing others, within his family, when the black plague hits town, and as a wartime medic (Boer War, WWI). He learns how to become a compounding pharmacist and volunteers at the local hospital. He also becomes a bit of a quack doctor (as he admits) when he gets into earth treatments (apparently applying a poultice of dirt under a bandage?) and hydropathy (some sort of obscure water treatment?). At one point Gandhi even calls in an “Ice Doctor” who cures him of dysentery by packing him in ice. Like his obsession with food, there are many tales of sickness, health, and his related philosophies.
Very Normal Thing #6: Annoying Administrative Work
In every group he’s a part of, Gandhi volunteers for many of the annoying tasks most of us would avoid doing – and then describes them in extensive detail. He translates correspondence from one language to another, answers other peoples’ mail, collects dues, raises money, hand-cranks the printing press, leases buildings, folds newspapers, passes around petitions, serves as secretary, scribes documents when he can’t get them copied, you get the picture. Even Gandhi tires of administrivia though; at one point, he bribes children to help him fold pamphlets with used postage stamps. Score.
The most interesting point, however, is that in the midst of these “Very Normal Things,” you see the greatness of the Mahatma emerging. He approaches the most annoying administrative work with a sense of servanthood. He strives for simplicity in his clothes, his surroundings, and his speech. He pursues brahmacharya (self-restraint) by limiting his consumption and swearing off sex. He seeks purity in keeping his surroundings clean and instructing others to do so. He practices ahimsa (non-violence) through his staunch vegetarianism. He advocates for Hindustani identity when he refuses to remove his turban, translates papers into accessible Indian languages, and insists upon wearing his khadi dhoti. Every “experiment with truth” he runs is enacted in the petri dish of his life. And the way he approaches the mundane realities of everyday – from food to clothes, from housework to administrative work – reinforces or undermines some ‘lived value’ he holds. Ultimately, in Gandhi’s case, those lived values – the ahimsa, brahmacharya, servanthood, identity, purity that he cultivated – became the same strengths which he brought to bear later in his toughest political trials.
There are a couple of moments when you can see the grand trajectory of the political movement in something small. For example, when Gandhi starts a vegetarian kitchen at his ashram and engages the students to cook in it, it becomes an object-lesson in self-sufficiency. When a friend comments: “The experiment contains the key to Swaraj” the links between the most mundane (e.g., schoolboys cooking daal) and the most ambitious (e.g., India achieving political independence) start to come into focus.
Gandhi teaches me that “Very Normal Things” and “Very Big Things” are ultimate one and the same. But I struggle with this. I love thinking and writing about the big, the grand, the ambitious, the intellectual – the “Very Big Things.” There’s some part of me that thinks that I will do my part in solving all the world’s problems by coming up with deep insights and articulating them in a compelling way. And yet, when I focus on the “Very Big Things,” I don’t necessarily see the change I seek.
Given this, I’m trying to focus on the “Very Normal Things.” Great things are the result of small, everyday actions, lived with intentionality, improved upon by reflection, and accumulated over time. Even the most inspirational leaders live their lives day-by-day. So I am building faith that if I do my “Very Normal Things” well, they’ll build into something weightier over time. That feels happily accessible, but also a bit daunting. It makes me realize that I’m indeed doing “Very Big Things” with every small action.
The small contains the key to the big.
Off to do “Very Normal Things” with my Sunday,
One final fun fact: Gandhi also just took away my excuse for not going to the gym: “. . . I believe even now, that, no matter what amount of work one has, one should always find some time for exercise, just as one does for one’s meals. It is my humble opinion that, far from taking away from one’s capacity for work, it adds to it.”