You’ve probably heard this saying from Napoleon Hill, once quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Even if you can’t do great things, you can do small things in a great way.”
It has become a cliché, of course, but I still think it captures something worthwhile.
Part of the appeal of this line is the way it helps to counter our tendency to live our lives “someday when”—as in, life will be so great “someday when” I get that degree or get that job or meet someone or write that novel.
Instead, the line asks: What is the greatness that’s possible today? What if—while you’re on your way to someday—you just decide to live today? What would it be like to focus on the small things you’re already doing, and do them with your whole self?
This reminds me of my grandchildren, ages 6, 6, 4 and 3. All day long, all they do is “small things”. But they do them with such delight, joy, and enthusiasm.
It’s as if they have a built-in chip in their brain that says, whatever you do, you must do with your whole self and you must have fun doing it!
We may need to recover some of that. Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, said:
“Play is exulting in the possible.”
Bringing a spirit of playfulness to the day, to work, even to small things, lets us exult in the life and joy and meaning that is possible today—even while we are working toward a long-term goal.
And yes, there’s something great about that.
Probably, many of us can identify with James Baldwin’s words:
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
There’s been plenty of pain to go around lately—both to experience and to read about.
But Baldwin is asking: how do we think about all that? How do we respond to pain, to heartbreak, to setbacks and disappointments? How does it affect us?
It’s a question people have wrestled with since ancient times.
Do I close down, go into hiding, curl up and wait for it all to be over? Or do I open up and let these experiences expand my heart and sharpen my focus on what makes life precious and what truly matters each day? Do I just focus on my own pain, or do I become more compassionate? Do I shrink or do I grow as a person?
Writing in the dark days of the civil war, Lincoln said:
“As the occasion is piled high with difficulty, we must rise with the occasion.”
Recently, in the Colorado fires, more than 100 homes were lost. It was terrible, of course, and many rushed to help. Tragedy often brings out the best in us.
The mother of a family of seven talked about how they lost everything in minutes, but were so grateful to be safe. Then she quoted her eleven-year-old son, who said: “It’s kind of cool to lose everything. Now we can do whatever we want.”
Well, you can say, he’s just a kid. He doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation. And that may be true. Still, there’s some wisdom there, don’t you think?
He raises an important question: What would I do, what would I be, if everything was taken away? If it was just me—and it was all up to me? If I had to start fresh?
To put it another way: What would it be like if I boiled my life down to the essentials, to the few things that absolutely mattered most? What if my life only had one question, and the way I lived and the person I became was the answer to that question?
Can we sense the energy, freedom and intensity such a question might bring to our days?
Last week, I quoted from Robert Nozick’s book, The Examined Life in which he explained why we should give ourselves an “A” in life. The book begins like this:
“I want to think about living and what is important in life…Mostly we tend—I do too—to live on automatic pilot.”
I think many of us feel that sometimes. We may have the sense that who we are and how we live just sort of happened, and that even when we did make choices, sometimes we didn’t quite know what we were choosing.
So what is it like to turn off the auto-pilot and try to become our own person? Nozick compares it to making a self-portrait, as Rembrandt often did.
“Staring out at us from his later self-portraits, Rembrandt is not simply one who looks like that but one who also sees and knows himself as that, with the courage this requires. We see him knowing himself…and that look of his…patiently waits for us too to become with equal honesty knowing of ourselves.”
Think about that. What would it be like to make a self-portrait every year, to spend hours looking at yourself, thinking, reflecting, wondering: Who is this person? What makes me unique? What do I most want for me? (Don’t forget to give yourself that “A”!)
Of course, Nozick doesn’t mean for us to be narcissistic. The goal is to be open, explore, to make life an adventure of personal growth. Nozick adds:
“When we guide our lives by our own pondered thoughts, it then is our life that we are living, not someone else’s.”
So how can we actually turn off the “auto pilot”—at least once in a while? How can we put our hands on the steering wheel of our own lives and be more our own person?
It may help to quietly face some courageous questions, like: What sort of person would I be if there was no one to praise or blame? Or, what sort of person would I be and how would I live if this were my last year?
When I was 7 or 8, I learned how to ride a bike at my grandma’s house. My teenage uncle had a bike and there was a field across the street. I would climb on, pedal, fall, repeat, over and over. But finally, by the end of the day, I had learned how to stay up and ride unsteadily across the field—and I never felt so triumphant!
Maybe life is like that, a process of learning how to go solo. Sure, taking our lives off auto-pilot (or taking off the training wheels) can be scary. But also exhilarating.
What grade would you give your life? (Careful, don’t be too hard on yourself!)
Robert Nozick believes that no matter what has happened in your life, you should give yourself an A. And he should know. He’s a former Harvard professor of philosophy and past President of the American Philosophical Association.
Nozick explains his idea in his book, The Examined Life:
On a 100-point scale, he says, you get 50 points just for being alive. Then you get 30 more points for being human. So you’re already up to 80, a “B” in most schools. Then, you get 10 more points if you have some skill, or if you can basically get through the day. Now you’re up to 90, an “A” or at least an “A – ”.
The last 10 points? That’s for all the other stuff we stress about most of the time.
Nozick suggests that if we would spend a little more time thinking about how incredible it is just to be alive and to be human—if we were solidly anchored there—then we might find that we were better equipped to handle the problems and stresses of life.
It’s an interesting thought to play with. Do you sense the possibilities?
News cycles come and go, troubles arrive and depart, and the world bombards us with “urgent” noise that may not matter in a week or a month.
But in the midst of it all, the person who feels good about herself and who quietly stays focused on the kind of human being she wants to be and on the joyful adventure of staying alive—ah, that person has a real edge. A secure place to stand in the storms.
Guest Post by Landon Saunders
Amid all our New Year Resolutions, I’ve decided what I will be most resolute about this year: I will pursue, follow, and make peace. I will be resolute in this quest.
As I look about, I see a nation, a government, states, communities, churches, families, and neighbors struggling with anger, suspicion, division, and, too often, hatred itself. I see polls that indicate an alarming willingness to support violence as a strategy to get one’s way, to enforce one’s beliefs. Some warn of another coming civil war.
So, I’ve decided that I will make the pursuit of peace one of my highest priorities. I will speak of the power of peace. I will constrain my ego. I will lay aside feelings of superiority in how I see things. I will “kick to the curb” any tendency to express “my way or the highway.” I will not make fun of those who think differently. I will not feel ill toward those with different views. I will quietly state my own views. I will follow the things that make for peace.
In the face of ill winds and a still aggressive virus I will steadfastly maintain my commitment to peace. I will do everything I can to make others safe. I will promote tolerance. I will advocate respect for others. I will seek to do no harm—with my thoughts, words, and actions.
I suffer. I hurt. I’m tired. Sometimes. I share these feelings with so many as we enter this new year.
But, in spite of this, so many of us found a way to bring some celebration to the just past holiday season. The actual holidays occurred on consecutive Saturdays. I liked that so much that I’ve decided to make each of my Saturdays this year a holiday! I’ll still suffer and hurt and be tired, but that’s all the more reason to give myself the gift of celebration each week.
So, to add specialness to my year, I will crown my Saturdays with a holiday spirit of good will, joy, and peace among all my neighbors in this nation, and beyond to the world.
And I will practice the power of peace each day.
As we start the New Year, I’ve been thinking—not about a great quotation, but about a cartoon I saw recently. Two characters are talking:
CHARACTER #1: What a mess the world is! I’m so worried about 2022 and what might happen.
CHARACTER #2: I think there will be flowers.
CHARACTER #1: Why do you say that?
CHARACTER #2: Because I’m planting flowers.
I realize this may sound a little sentimental or simplistic to some; I get that. But I also think it points to a pretty profound possibility.
First, because it’s about the law of nature: we reap what we sow. You can’t plant lemons and get cherries. If you want flowers, plant flowers.
Second, because no matter what is happening in the world, the one thing I have control of is me—what I’m doing, what I’m living for, how I respond, my attitudes, conversations, behaviors, what I bring to each day and to each relationship.
Every day we’re all putting something into the world. We’re all planting something.
And third, even though planting seems like a small, seemingly insignificant action, it creates significant possibilities. As Samuel Johnson said: “We create the future with the present.”
For example, what kind of future can I create by planting cynicism? By being a big critic of everything and everyone? By just being a complainer? Is there any future to that?
On the other hand, if I want a loving future, I must love freely now. Each day brings opportunities for planting things like genuine caring, honesty, respect, deep listening, real presence, generosity, humor, courage, thoughtfulness, creativity.
So maybe the big question of the New Year is not so much what might happen. Maybe the big question is: what will I plant?