Dreaming Big, Living Small


Dreaming Big, Living Small. Photo credit: Suus Wansink

I am a dreamer, and I dream big.

I’ve always wanted to live a dramatic story, to Do Something Big For God! Make an impact! Change the World! Build the Kingdom!!! – and other slogans that require multiple exclamation marks at the end.

So many are writing these days about the finding joy in the everyday, and deciding to celebrate living small. It’s a fashionable theme, and has resonated with many.

Unfortunately, I’m the exception. I confess whenever someone writes something about ‘living small’, my reaction is strong and immediate: I hate it. It feels so parochial, self-indulgent to focus on the here and now and me rather than the others, the world and the future.

For the past six years, however, I have been forced to live small. An autoimmune illness has rendered me housebound, in bed for for 21 hours a day. For the first eighteen months, I had very little contact with the outside world; sometimes it felt like my Facebook status posts were the only evidence I could give that I was still alive.

When ‘living small’ looks like one beige room, staggering to the toilet and back to bed, it doesn’t sound quite so fun.


After I came to terms with the fact that my life had changed, writing and social media became a lifeline for me. I could still dream big, I could still make an impact, I could still campaign and Change the World.

Even though I know (I promise, I do!) that I’m not the Saviour of the Universe, part of me still believes it is still good to dream big, and have a desire to change the world. We need the prophets, the campaigners, the activists, the leaders. There is so much that is wrong with the world, and change only comes through people who have the courage to take a stand. I still want to be that person.

The only trouble is this: living big is exhausting. Campaigning for change feels like an exercise in futility. Some of us have big hearts, but the sorrows of the whole world are too heavy for anyone to carry. If we aren’t careful, we implode from the weight of it all.

This is what I wrestle with: what if our hearts still dream big, when we are forced to live small? If I give up my drive to Make a Difference, will this bring peace to me, or will I lose the essence of my character? Societal change always comes through people being prepared to sacrifice of themselves – but when is it too costly? How much do you sacrifice of yourself to achieve your dream?


Last month, I escaped to sunny Greece for two weeks. I lived small. I watched bold pink flowers in the breeze, and down at the beach I slowed my breath down to the rhythm of the waves as they lapped the shore. I focused on my son. We read Enid Blyton books. We watched the ants wrestle, and giggled as we saw them stealing wasps’ eggs, all in their neat rows. I lived small, focusing on my body and its needs, resting and eating, and watching the beautiful world.

I have to admit, it felt marvellous.


The biographies of world-changers can be inspiring yet unhelpful. A written story necessarily excludes all the banalities, so we just read one dramatic event, one breakthrough after another. We lose the fact that it takes years to get to that point. We don’t read of the hours they spent sleeping, or preparing meals, working, reading, laughing with friends, walking, fixing broken windows, comforting crying children.

My mind goes to St Paul, preacher extraordinaire, who helped establish the first church and bring Christianity to new nations. I remember that Paul was also a tentmaker. In between those dramatic speeches and visiting churches, his life looked a little boring. He did not spend all his time in travel, speaking, reading, praying, mentoring. A huge bulk of his time was spent in the mundane and routine, in stitching and mending.

I pause and imagine him doing that, day after day. I find my breathing slows, just a little.

I dream big, but I’m learning to live small. Much of the time you’re frustrated at what you’re not doing and not achieving – this is what learning patience feels like.

I’m learning to find meaning in the mundane. Living small is a new discipline for me, to slow down my rhythm to the limits of my body. You discover (again) that you simply can’t produce all you want, and can’t live at the pace you admire in other successful people.

I’m still wrestling with it, but sometimes in the midst of the hours of looking at the ceiling, I remember that I am not the saviour of the universe, and that even the Messiah spent much of his life sanding down timber, wiping the sawdust from His forehead.

Over to you: 

  • Do you live your life in the ‘here and now’ or in the ‘then and there’? 
  • In which ways have you been forced to ‘live small’? 


Tanya Marlow
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35 thoughts on “Dreaming Big, Living Small

  1. OH friend, this is such a good word! Thank you for sharing what you are learning through such a hard lesson. I feel caught in this duality as well. I have big dreams but sometimes feel that is selfish as well (do my children suffer when I spend time chasing big dreams?) I want to live small, to be present and enjoy my family (but then does my soul shrivel a bit when I feel God uniquely gifted me for some things that require much of me?) I feel like I live in the tension between the now and then every day and there isn’t an easy answer yet for me. My forced living small came when I wanted to do it ALL but couldn’t understand why I couldn’t make it through the day without extreme exhaustion and chest pains. Anxiety has been my limiting force, telling me that big isn’t always best for me and my family. But as we launch out on an international move (can you say “big dream”) I am trying to figure out how to dream big and live small at the same time in a way that is healthy for me. Thank you for your guidance in this – blessings!

    • Do us leaders and go-getters all feel this way?? I’ve felt and still feel this tension, and in the past it’s brought a lot of disappointment and disillusion when I couldn’t live big as I had planned I would. Thank you, Tanya, for these words, and thank you to you and Nicole for living this dreaming big/living small out in the reality of this life and our faith. Lead on, friends!

    • Thanks, Nicole! I’m really interested in the guilt I hear from you (I wonder if this is a universal thing, or particularly a mother-thing?) For me, I always think there’s got to be a balance – if you are feeding your own soul then that will benefit your children (and also sometimes you need to just do something else or you think you’ll scream from the banality of it all!) Mummy-guilt is the worst – but if you were spending all your time with your kids and not chasing your dreams, you’d feel guilty about that, feeling that somehow you were modelling to them that they should not pursue their own dreams, and instead expend themselves on their family.

      But SO EXCITING about the Big Dream of International Move. Hoping your anxiety protects you just the right amount, but does not hold you prisoner.

  2. Tanya, this is so good! I’ve been thinking of this lately, thinking of how…I almost want to say “damaging” it is for me to spend a lot of time focusing on the big problems of the world. I hesitate to say it because I don’t want to live with my head in the sand, ignoring the big issues, but the big problems of the world, the really deep and terrible ones just eat away at my soul, and participating in trying to fix them in the tiny way that individuals can (and hopefully, if they all do, some real change will come), that little bit of participation feels so ineffective and useless. On an emotional level, this is really hard on me. (Part of this problem, I’m sure, is the overwhelming amount of negative information about the world I can find, and the small amount of positive.)

    When I focus on the small part of the world that I live in, on the issues and problems here, I feel so much more empowered to actually be of use. But I can’t just ignore the world. Because Good God in Heaven, how can we ignore so much pain and suffering?

    SO yes, as you can see, it’s a struggle to figure it all out. I occasionally have big dreams. but more often I have big worries. And finding the right perspective on the big and small issues is an ongoing battle.

    Thanks for these great thoughts, friend.

    • Oh, I am SO with you on that whole exact issue. The guilt! The guilt! I think this year I’m beginning to hear my soul say I need a break. It doesn’t mean abandoning, just shifting focus a bit. There’s no point getting burnt out. Recently I heard of a counselling service especially for campaigners, and that was the first time I allowed myself to acknowledge, ‘gosh, this saving the world thing is LEGITIMATELY draining.’ (And then of course, the guilt, because not as draining as actually BEING IN A WAR, you MASSIVE WUSS! But maybe I am just a wuss, and I need to protect my wuss-like self every now and again). From one guilt-monger to another, friend xx

    • I, too, often feel soul-hurt and heartache from the terrible woes of the greater world. And, I, too, am forced by illness to live in an ever-shrinking world of my own. What I have resolved to do is to spread the light wherever I can, by simply being KIND to others. When I’m buying groceries, I make actual eye contact with the checker, ask them about their day, maybe comment on their hair or jewelry. Or when I’m at the doctor’s office, I do the same with the receptionist and the nurse. This kind of social interaction does NOT come easily to me – I am naturally quite introverted. I’ve never done this kind of thing. But I am physically incapable of doing big things to drive out the darkness in this world. But I can do the little things. Who know? I might be the only nice person that checker sees all day! I feel like doing these little acts of kindness is kind of a subversive counterattack against the prevailing culture. It’s not much, but it is something I CAN do, and it certainly can’t hurt! 😉

  3. Thank you for this! So glad my reading led me here today. I’ve been mulling this very thing. (And by mulling, I mean deep tear-inducing soul-searching.) Knowing I have company is a comfort.

  4. I am echoing what everyone here seems to be experiencing along with you. Since I was young, there has been this overwhelming sense of “called to.” As I move out of my 40s, I have found relief from that tension some of us have mentioned by realizing I am, above all, called to share Christ, period. That may be through a conversation with my child or with a stranger, through a blog post or a best seller, it doesn’t really matter. My life is really about God’s call — more than my “calling” — to obey him in small and big ways.

    • Oh, I love this! I actually wrote a post on Calling here at the Mudroom with this exact same conclusion – the disconcerting comfort of looking to the everyday spontaneous moments rather than Calling with a Capital C. Thanks so much for commenting

      • Calling has been a favorite (?) topic of mine, as well. I think understanding our calling is also about getting out of our own heads and seeing what we do and accomplish through our gifts from the perspective of others. I find what you do quite wonderful and amazing. 🙂

  5. Thank you, Tanya. The effects of chronic illness and fatigue on me have been similar, I think I’d call it ‘living slow’. I’ve had to change from being the busy person that everyone asked to do one more thing, to limiting what I take on because I’ve had to accept I won’t be able to deliver on everything if I take on too much. From being a ‘deadline person’ to having to ask for extensions on things because I just can’t work as fast as I could any more, and when my body and brain are demanding sleep they no longer take no for an answer.

    Our recent holiday with friend in a house up on the hill out of St Ives meant that I had to decide very early that I couldn’t join in many of the planned group activities because I’d be unable to keep up. So I decided to enjoy the beautiful view across the bay – so different from my view of the houses across the road at home – and not fret about not being able to walk into the town. I enjoyed being in a different house with different people rather than feeling frustrated about not being able to go on a boat trip. I got to know one person, who is suffering from major auto immune problems and had far more limitations than I did, really well. I think holidays are a major challenge when you’re fatigued, and it sounds like a joke, but even with that level of activity I’ve needed to rest for a week since I came back!

    • Hi Pam – I knew that you were going through a real dip in health, but I didn’t really have an idea of the scale of how things were for you before this comment. I’m so sorry that you’re so restricted. I love the way you describe deciding in advance not to be disappointed about not being able to join in group actitivities – (FOMO – fear of missing out – is real!!) and the way you decided to concentrate on the view instead. I think that is where I find myself, too, much of the time. Slow v fast is a really good way of describing it. And the bit where you were talking about the needs around you and “the rolling up of sleeves in itself exhausts me some days!” made me laugh because it’s so true! I’m acknowledging the disappointment of having to change your identity to adapt to your new limitations, but also admiring the way in which you’re doing it. Much love

      • Thank you Tanya – I’m having what I suspect is a really common experience of being unable to get a diagnosis that fits my symptoms and explains the situation to those who don’t know me. I have a really long history now, dating back to the last year of ordination training in 2003-04, of chronic illness and infection, culminating in a major operation to remove my gall bladder, which was badly infected, and another stay in hospital to treat a very serious episode of cellulitis. All the antibiotics I’ve had probably haven’t helped my general wellbeing.

        Over the last four years I’ve had chronic and increasingly severe leg pain.which has restricted my mobility more and more. I was sent for a consultation for hip arthritis, but have just been diagnosed with ‘trochanteric bursitis’, which is also known as ‘trochanteric pain syndrome’ and this may be treatable by cortisone injections when I can get them. This could have been triggered by the cellulitis. I also now have increasing fatigue which I can’t get a diagnosis for at all – at the moment I am having to go back to bed every afternoon because I am overcome by tiredness and need 2-3 more hours of sleep. It would be great to be able to put a name on this, in one way, but I’m aware that naming it probably won’t help very much!

        Thank you for your kindness.

        • Thanks so much for taking the time to explain. I’ve just looked it up – it sounds really frustrating, but I am glad that you now have a name for it. The name helps, I think. Do you think the fatigue is in any way related to the leg pain and inflammation? I’m so sorry for all this exhaustion. Even if they can’t do anything, I hope they find what’s causing it. Sometimes even the not knowing is exhausting. Sending love and prayers

  6. As someone similarly restricted from M.E. and grappling with these issues, I appreciate what you write here – particularly the reminder that we don’t often see the in-between times of the world changers. So true. Like others have said, I try to just do the best I can with what I’m given and what I have to give in my little sphere of influence. Some days I’m content and at peace, others it’s just really hard.

    • “Some days I’m content and at peace, others it’s just really hard.” – oh gosh – yes, me too. It’s a real skill to do the best with what you’ve been given – for anyone – but I think especially when you’ve been dealt a crummy hand. I’m sending lots of love

  7. Tonya, I think my life is a balance of the here & now and the ‘then & there’, for, as Ecclesiastes 3:11 says (one of my favorite verses), “He has set eternity in their hearts.” I think the tension we feel to be in the moment, to be present with the task at hand versus the desire to dream big and change the world is a God-given tension. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?” (John Donne, I think? maybe?)
    Personally, I struggle with NOT being present with those right in front of me because my personality is such that I’m always planning ahead, looking to the next Exciting Thing–the blog post I want to write,a retreat I’m attending or a conference I want to go to, our Women’s Group gatherings….things like that. I think that’s why Jesus reminded us to live for today, for ‘tomorrow has enough trouble of its own’ and all that. I need to learn to be in the moment with the folks (usually my husband 🙂 who are right in front of me.
    Thank you for sharing your journey and struggle with us. Well done.

    • forgive me for misspelling your name! I had ‘a’ instead of ‘o’ then changed it; not sure why.

    • ” “He has set eternity in their hearts.” I think the tension we feel to be in the moment, to be present with the task at hand versus the desire to dream big and change the world is a God-given tension. “” YES YES YES! This is exactly what I think, and you’ve expressed it so well. It’s all about balancing that tension, isn’t it? Thanks so much for commenting. (And don’t worry about the name thing, Judy!)

  8. Tanya,
    Don’t ever give up your dreams… You may live small but your impact is huge. Your impact goes round the world. Who knows what impact your encouragement from your writing has had on so many people and who knows what course of events you may have set into action from sharing your world around the world.
    People’s impact sometimes is known and out front and sometimes it is in the shadows and only God knows. That does not change the fact of it’s worth. I know your impact is of great worth for you struggle yet remain bound fiercely to God. What a bold statement to us all.

    • Thank you for your beautiful and poetic words – loved that sentence about impact being out and front vs in the shadows or only God knowing. If I could have a choice in the matter, though, I think I’d pick ‘out and front’!! 😉 Thanks so much for your encouragement

      • Well to me you are “out front” and I can see from others words to you that the impact is there. 🙂

        • I’ve been thinking about the possible parallel between being an ‘anchorite’ and ministering mainly online. Don’t know if that grabs you, Tanya! x

      • You’ve certainly had a big impact on me, and I’m quite far away from you. (Looks as far east as she can, but can not see England….)

  9. “I remember that I am not the saviour of the universe, and that even the Messiah spent much of his life sanding down timber, wiping the sawdust from His forehead.” I need to remember this, too. Much of life is just ordinary and mundane, but there is also beauty there if we open our eyes to look for it. We can also make a difference by being faithful in our smallness. Thanks, Tanya. Your words are always inspiring and always have food for thought. Blessings!

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