Photo above taken by the author of Javier chasing the waves. Santiago, 2009.
With so many people living on this planet, the threshold for what will get our attention is getting higher every day. Companies have to grow faster, people have to break records, we have to have “more of an impact” to be noticed.
It’s no secret here that I’m ambitious. I aspire to wisdom, bravery, success, respect. Yes, I want to help others… but also to feed my own insecurities. When I’m confronted with the painful realisation of how short, boring and hard life can be, it’s a welcome distraction to work on something that has BIG IMPACT. To be able to point to an achievement that stands and is acknowledged by others as “good” appeals very much. That satisfies my ego.
However, I’m learning that it’s not always the big things that have the most impact. The small things rarely are.
A piece of art that reminds you of your grandfather.
When a stranger looks you in the eye and smiles.
When you feel scared and do it anyway.
Seeing a project you have been involved in come to life.
Climbing a mountain, a wall, a ladder.
Delivering baking to your new neighbour.
Taking a deep breath and counting to five.
Growing a seedling.
Being generous with your time.
This is communicated far more eloquently in George Eliot’s Middlemarch:
Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
These lines sit in the back pocket of my diary, and I pull them out when I need some grounding. When the achievement means more than who I am becoming as I work towards the goal. When I get a head full of self-importance and how I treat those around me suffers.
See, this flies in the face of the recognition I’ve been programmed to crave. Those who “faithfully live a hidden life” do not know the good they leave behind. I’ve interpreted this not as ignorance but as humility – they are not so proud as to think they will have left an impact. They know the part they play in the “growing good” of the world is like a drop in the ocean.
They are too busy living faithfully to worry about this.
I do not think living faithfully has any particular affinity to religion, but a faith in the inherent good of humanity, the power of the small things, that we will work ourselves out for the best, and that all we can do is try.
As I come back to it, this quote helps me remember what the more important things to value might be. It also helps me realise that we will never know the full impact of the mark we will leave on this world.
It may be that I change people’s lives for the better. My ego would certainly like that – it’s a life raft for my self-worth in this sea of self-doubt. There’s a much higher chance that I will not. That does not mean that my life was a waste, or that I “failed”.
Instead, I find it helpful to look at this quote and remember: I am hardly of my own making; I owe a great deal to the universe for aligning for me in this way when the chances were so infinitesimally small; there is huge power in kindness, gentleness, humility.
The small things rarely are.
We can idolise those who are remembered in death, those who’ve “made a mark”, who’ve influenced many, whose name is echoed on the lips of those they’ve never met.
And yet here is the most poetic example, the true essence of a life well lived, that I’ve ever had the privilege of reading.
No one will remember what we said. That does not mean that we should not say what is true and fair, as kindly as we can.
All of our actions will be forgotten. That does not make them any less good.
In a world fixated on accolades, impact, and standing out from the crowd, this way of living takes courage and quiet determination. It removes the grandeur and focuses on who’s within our reach.
A quiet life with warm friendships, a gentle kindness towards oneself, enough for the journey and no more, is more than enough.
The small things rarely are.