“Little drops of water, little grains of sand/make the mighty ocean and the pleasant land—” 1
Julia A.F. Carney was certainly right about her observation: it takes lots of little, seemingly insignificant things—such as drops of water or grains of sand—to make something grand and glorious, such as the beach or an endless ocean.
However, little drops of water falling on your head at frequent intervals can drive you out of your mind. A little grain of sand in your eye stops all pleasure or progress until it’s removed.
It’s the little things, often, that can make us or break us.
Nine years ago, when I came to an unknown neighbor’s door to introduce myself and hand out an invitation to a women’s gathering in my home, I saw that this woman was not likely to be able to come to my gathering. Her right foot was turned outward. At age 90, she lived by herself and moved slowly with the aid of a walker. She appreciated the invitation, though, and hoped I would come by some time for a visit. I did—and I’ve been going by ever since.
As more and more of her story came out, I learned that, of her five children, three tragically died—one as a teenager, two more as adults. She has lived as a widow for forty years in the little, blue-painted house her husband built. A mishandled surgery caused her to be a captive to her walker. Pauline has every reason to be a depressed and bitter old woman, nursing her sorrows, turning inward.
But Pauline is just the opposite of bitter and depressed. I was drawn to her cheerfulness when I met her, and at 99, she is the same as on that first day.
When I go by on my noon walks, she is invariably sitting in her chair by the window. As soon as she sees me, she scoots with effort out of her chair, grabs hold of her walker and heads toward the kitchen. I go to the back door and wait. After a few minutes, she opens the door with her usual smile lighting up her face and a twinkle in her eye.
“I’m sorry I made you get up!” I say, as I hand her the newspaper or the mail from the mailbox at the end of her lane.
“Oh, no, I need to get up!” she says. “I need to move! It’s time for my lunch anyway!”
It’s what she has said every time I apologize for making her get up.
What is Pauline’s secret?
“I’ve had a good life!”
This—despite the painful losses of her children and a husband that died too soon. Pauline’s secret is that she is thankful.
She is thankful for daughters who look in on her, for a nephew who brings groceries, for friends who play bridge with her. She is thankful for a beautiful day—even when she is imprisoned in her house. Most of the time, she is just at home. She perks up when Trent and I come to her door and misses us when we don’t. Such a little thing on our part, but she considers it a treat.
I have never heard a complaining word, even when she fell in the night one time and could not get up and could not reach the telephone. She just lay there till morning, assured that her son would phone at the usual hour. But that hour passed. His call did not come till later, when, of course, he did not get an answer,
“Did you cry?” I asked. “No, I just waited. I knew he’d call.”
“I want to be like you when I’m your age,” I tell her.
Her secret is practicing thankfulness for years. It doesn’t usually happen overnight.
Thankfulness seems like such a little thing—but it has profound consequences. A practice of thankfulness transforms outlook, and outlook transforms character.
There are other little things with profound consequences, but in a negative direction.
They are the things that niggle.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “niggle” as “…being over-elaborate on petty details” and “niggling” as “trifling, petty, lacking in breadth…”
That is exactly how I would describe what sometimes happens in conversations with my husband. We think we are talking about the same thing—almost always insignificant details—but he doesn’t understand me. I don’t understand him. We repeat ourselves; we argue our points. Finally, we realize we are simply approaching the topic through our own grids—perfectly reasonable to us—but not to the other. How could such a little thing—so “trifling and petty and lacking in breadth”—disturb our equilibrium? My thinking goes: Why doesn’t he understand me by now? Or: How could we get into a tense conversation over such a little thing? I’m not sure how his thinking goes! But if we let little arguments continue to niggle, they can quickly change a serene mood to a tense one. We have to let little, niggling things go.
Someone has said, “Life’s mole hills become mountains in the middle of the night.” 2 I have found this to be true. Matters that loom large and disturb my sleep in the night, when examined by light of day, often dwindle down to mole-hills. Not always, of course. But it has happened enough that I remind myself: wait till morning. This may not be a mountain, after all. It is good, in the night, to let potential mole-hills go.
When I find myself having a “conversation” in my mind with someone—invariably trying to justify myself—I realize I am on a dangerous trajectory because I am assuming and imagining the other’s response. What nonsense! This is a little thing that, if I allow myself to indulge in it, will just grow larger. I have to let this little thing go—right at the beginning.
Little grudges, harbored, become big grudges and strain relationships. Little sins, tolerated, will in time mask bigger sins. Little doubts, believed, will stifle trust. The trend is always downward. We have to let little things go.
On the other hand, little positive practices become life-giving habits. Pauline’s thankfulness, for instance. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I start thanking God for everything I can think of: I’m not on an airplane! (That one rates very high.) I’m not in a concentration camp! (Yes, I do think that.) I can walk and talk and see and hear and think. I have meaningful work to do. I have a husband, sleeping beside me. I am warm and safe. I have lovely air coming in the window. And the list goes on—usually “little” everyday things that I often take for granted—before I fall asleep again. The list reminds me how much is good in my life. It quiets my mind and gets it off the bigger things I can’t change.
When my husband’s younger brother was in Viet Nam in the thick of battle, it was his mother’s (my mother-in-law’s) daily letters that kept his sanity, kept home and normal life before him, gave him something to live and hope for. It was a “little” thing—something a mother would do—but it was life-giving for her son. He, in turn, read every one of those letters to his comrades, many of whom got no letters at all. That, too, was a little thing, but they listened to those letters hungrily. They spelled “home” to those soldiers, even though the letters did not come from their own homes. His small act was life-giving.
Little things can niggle and dampen the best outlook. Little things can cheer and raise a dampened outlook to thankfulness and reminders of the good.
Little drops of water—filling an ocean or dropping on the head? It makes all the difference.
1 Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney (1823 –1908), American poet, from her poem “Little Things”
2 I have looked for the source of this quote but have been unable to find it.