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Author and Architect Sarah Susanka Advises: "Be the Custodian of Your Own Life"

March 17, 2010

Category: Environmental Science, Events


SusankaAuthor and architect Sarah Susanka brought her "Not So Big" philosophy to Catawba College's campus on March 16 and advised those members of her 11 a.m. audience to "be the custodian of your own life."

"We are that channel by which God moves through this world," Susanka explained, noting "those inner judgments [each person makes about themselves] undermine the truth of who God wants you to be."

An architect by training, Susanka developed her philosophy of "Not So Big" into a series of best-selling books. She was the keynote speaker for Catawba College's seventh annual Lilly Colloquium. Her remarks focused on the philosophy for living that she expounded in her book, "The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters." Her visit to campus was sponsored by Catawba's Lilly Center for Vocation and Values and the Center for the Environment.

Susanka encouraged her listeners to "be present in your life" because that is "how divinity pours through you."   "Engage everyday from that place of highest learning," she continued, explaining that "every single thing that happens in our life is an interpretation of us." "Start to pare away the stuff that's in the way of who God wants you to be," she said.

She shared some details about the course her own life has taken, emphasizing the learned need "to be obedient to the situation."   She referred to her life as "my movie or my waking dream," and explained, "every event can feed you spiritually if you look at life as a student."

SusankaBorn in England, she moved with her family to the United States  — to Los Angeles, California  —   in 1971 at age 14. She joked that the move sent her into a state of shock since the cultural changes she experienced were so different from what she had been exposed to in England. "Kids were tripping out on LSD," she recalled, noting that at the all-girls school she had attended in England, smoking was not even allowed.

She explained that throughout her life "the one thing I longed to understand was who I was. I grew up in a family of agnostics, yet my favorite class in school was divinity."  She noted that although she did not have the spiritual support of her family at home, she "loved the [biblical] parables, loved the stories of how to live a more true life."

Susanka said she had loved writing from the time she was very young, but when she announced to her mother that she wanted to become a writer, her mother "burst into tears."  Her father intervened and suggested, "Why don't you wait until you have something to write about?" and encouraged her to pursue a career in architecture. Explaining that she had "always loved dimensions in general," she moved in that career direction and eventually "developed a successful architectural practice designing middle-class homes."  Her home design work focused on her idea that "the feeling of home has almost nothing to do with size."

As she became busier and busier with her architect career, she had "less and less time to do what I know I had wanted to do which was to become a writer."   She realized she had "to make time to do that thing that I longed to do [write]."   She began scheduling time to write into her schedule – two-hour blocks, twice a week.

"When I started writing, little did I realize that everything inspired to support that," she said. "The universe will allow you to do what your heart wants to do and will bring to bear all things to make that possible."

She worked on her first book, based on the idea that so many people were building too much square footage and filling it with rooms they did not need or use. Instead, she argued, what they should build were smaller houses, but hers should not be "the small house book, it should be the not so big house book."   With that one turn of phrase, Susanka, and others, including her editor, realized she was on to a new concept.

However, her first foray into writing was far from over; her editor asked her to rewrite her book with a co-author. Initially, Susanka balked at the idea and became depressed, but as she removed herself as "the obstacle in the next step of my movie and became obedient to the situation," everything fell into place.

"As I wrote what I knew, I was able to deliver into the marketplace exactly what the planet needed today," she remembered. When she finally completed that first book, "it went up to #1 in all categories on Amazon" and "spoke to a segment of the population who were disenfranchised by how current houses were being built."

That first book was the launch pad for Susanka's "Not So Big" philosophy and resulted in seven additional books. In those subsequent books, including "The Not So Big Life," she articulated, "how I had come to live this different way."

As Susanka closed out her remarks during her 11 a.m. session at the college, she shared the following:
5 Little Rules of the Road – Attitudes for Living

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  1. Follow your passions. ;
  2. Clearly express your intentions, but let go. ;
  3. Be obedient to the situation. ;
  4. Go towards that which you are rejecting. ;
  5. Do one thing at a time (it's being present that matters).
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Previous notable speakers who have participated in annual Lilly Colloquia  include Leonard Pitts, Martin Marty, David Bornstein, Sharon Parks, Mackey Austin and Joe Ehrmann. Catawba's Lilly Center for Vocation and Values is directed by Dr. Kenneth W. Clapp, senior vice president and chaplain. The Center was established in 2003 and funded with a $2 million grant the College received from the Lilly Endowment, Inc.  

The Lilly Center seeks to help students and members of the larger community determine values for their lives and allow those values to guide decisions relative to the vocations they choose and the priorities they set. Critical to this process is the recognition that as the children of God all are called to use the talents and gifts that have been provided not only for the realization of their own capabilities, but in service to others and in making the world a better place.

The Center for the Environment, which co-sponsored Susanka's visit to campus, was founded in 1996 with the mission to educate the public and the college community about regional environmental challenges and to foster community-based, sustainable solutions to those challenges. Dr. John Wear is the Center's founding executive director


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