“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”
With historical context, this quote makes sense to me. She’s encouraging individuals to stand up against the horrors of the Third Reich. But maybe there’s something to be said about us all living a small life instead. I’m reminded here of a passage I recently read in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain:
"There was not one thing in a place like France or New York or Charleston that Ruby wanted. And little she even needed that she couldn’t make or grow or find on Cold Mountain. She held a deep distrust of travel, whether to Europe or anywhere else. Her view was that a world properly put together would yield inhabitants so suited to their lives in their assigned place that they would have neither need nor wish to travel. No stagecoach or railway or steamship would be required; all such vehicles would sit idle. Folks would, out of utter contentment, choose to stay home since the failure to do so was patently the root of many ills, current and historic. In such a stable world as she envisioned, some might live many happy years hearing the bay of a distant neighbor’s dog and and yet never venture out far enough from their own fields to see whether the yawp was from hound or setter, plain or pied."
I’m not saying there’s a right way to live. Obviously, in the face of something momentous like genocide, slavery, or social injustice, it’s right to burn bright, leave home, stand up against evil. But otherwise it’s okay to be content with life at hand, even if it’s a relatively “small” life.