Small Things are all that Matter


What makes a great life if not the interweaving of a million small threads? Small things add up. Small things matter. They are, in fact, the only things that matters. Since great accomplishments are nothing but the sum total of countless steps that appear insignificant in themselves, one does well to mind the details. This is true for the discovery of a cure, an enlightened piano performance, the raising of healthy, well-adjusted children, the building of almost anything worthwhile, from a bench, to a baseball team, to a business.

Hence the trouble with fixing our sights on great accomplishments. We end up tripping over the details. A character in a story who claims she will “do great things,” is almost always a guaranteed failure—have you noticed? So fixated is she on the future glory, the bottom line, or the eventual outcome, that she tramples and trips over the small stuff. It is a waste of her time. Yet the cumulative total of a thousand neglected things, however diminutive at first glance, leads to ruin. Things like telling small truths, showing kindness to people who lack influence, doing inglorious tasks while spreading equanimity, saying thank you, eating well, taking time to breath in and out with intention.

“We cannot do great things,” said Mother Teresa in her now famous quote. “We can only do small things with great love.” Not a bad one to remember.

My daughter is graduating from high school next month, and if she and her fellow graduates were to absorb one message as they cross the threshold from high school into post-high school life, I would have it be that. How many graduation speeches have exhorted graduating seniors to “go out and do great things”? Well, in the spirit of Mother Teresa, I would tell them: “do small things, one after another, and do them honestly and humbly, with love. Great things may very well happen if you do this, but don’t give it a second thought. Each and every small act you do: that is what matters.”

This concept came to mind last week as I was pulling weeds for a gardening client. Some of the weeds were less than a quarter of an inch tall, and I carefully pulled them up, roots attached, one after another. It does not get much smaller than this, does it folks? And I asked myself how I could do the smallest tasks of my job with “great love.” A few of my usual practices came to mind.

To begin with, I pay attention to how I position myself as I weed. I try to shift positions from one yoga-like stretch to another, in order to lessen tightening in my body and distribute strain. And as in yoga practice, I try to breathe steadily. I try to silently repeat a mantra throughout my work hours, a spill-over from my non-work life. It’s a practice I recommend, if only to banish the ear worm. Who wants the lyrics of “Oklahoma” looping through her head an entire morning? Finally, I try to pay attention to the sounds around me—sometimes birds, waves, the brush of wind.

I do these practices to nourish myself as I work. But I started to wonder if this is my way of doing “small things with great love.” Who knows? Perhaps in some unseen way I am infusing nourishment and love into my clients’ gardens.

When I’ve finished weeding a garden, I like to survey the broader accomplishment: a prim, beautiful garden. In the course of the work, however, I focus on one square foot of ground, the one directly in front of me, and then another. I pull one weed, and another weed, and repeat.  That is, after all, all that matters.

{First published in North Coast Citizen, 2010}

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