It's the little things. I'm currently sitting on a flight from Connecticut to St. Louis, pondering a variety of minor occurrences that have recently happened in my life and marveling at the depth of their impact. Let's work backward chronologically.
- The steward on this flight just offered me the entire can of soda rather than just the 4-ounce drink typically provided.
- The sisters I live with in religious community made a point of getting up earlier than they needed to in order to say goodbye before I left for the airport this morning, and one of them even made sure the car was warmed up before we ventured out into the polar vortex.
- My grandniece Marie, at only a little more than 12 months old but meeting me for the first time, for some unknown reason decided that she really liked me and cuddled in my lap for close to an hour on a recent visit.
- A friend shared a particularly meaningful piece of music, recognizing its healing significance at a painful moment.
- A young barista swirled a little heart in the frothy top of my cappuccino just to evoke a smile.
The list could go on and on. When I take stock of the multitude of ways that kindnesses are demonstrated, I find myself humbled by the blessings that are showered upon me every day — by so very, very many "regular" people.
A spiritual practice I have come to love (and that has made me a more grateful human being, I'd like to believe) is ending my day with a litany of gratitude. As I close my bedroom door and prepare to go to sleep, I replay my day in my mind, articulating specific people, incidents or circumstances that bestowed blessing upon me during the course of the day.
And then I end by thanking God for the blessings of the day that I have yet to recognize, either because I missed them or because I didn't see them as blessings. (Full disclosure: There are some things that stay in that "You call that a blessing?" category for a long, long time — everything from hurtful comments to the stomach flu.)
So how is it that such small things can carry such deep meaning? At 30,000 feet above Ohio right now, I am noticing that everything down below is small. Vast lakes can be seen in their entirety, major cities can be captured in a single panoramic scan, even skyscrapers are hard to spot beneath the clouds. When I'm down on the ground in the midst of those lakes and cities and buildings, I'm the one that feels small, yet right now a changed perspective has turned the tables and made everything seem different. In reality, very little has changed.
Is that lake big or small? It depends on whether I am trying to swim across it or comparing it to the Great Lake further out on the horizon. Is the problem of my discomfort (because the person sitting next to me is overflowing into my seat) big or small? That, too, depends on my perspective.
If I am focused on my own comfort and preferences, it's a big problem; if I consider that she is a woman with a unique life story that likely includes (if my powers of observation are accurate) small children and a demanding job, it's a very small problem.
How do I choose to perceive it, as about her or about me? How do I choose to perceive her, as the person next to me or as a new acquaintance named Jeanne? I once heard a definition of humility that comes to mind in this type of situation: Humility is allowing every person to be her own story rather than a character in mine.
Likewise, there is no such thing as a small act of kindness. Sure, big parties and special gifts that demonstrate appreciation are wonderful to receive, but sometimes what's even more meaningful is the look of compassion silently shared from across the dinner table or the handwritten note received in the mail.
My sister told me that when she and her husband were talking about how to celebrate their upcoming 20th wedding anniversary, she told him that the only gift she wanted was a handwritten love letter from him. To date, she says, that is the single best gift she has received from anyone, ever. It wasn't expensive, but it was invaluable. Gifts that carry our hearts; words that convey our souls; gestures that speak to our spirits — these are all "small things" that are anything but small.
Each of us is powerful beyond our wildest imaginations. We carry within us the power to build up or destroy another person's mood, reputation, or self-concept. We have the ability to broaden minds or make them more narrow by the conversations in which we engage. We can soften or harden hearts with our looks and our tones of voice and our choice of words. We can provide hope and light and joy, or we can sow seeds of negativity and suspicion and doubt.
Rarely do I realize the power I have merely by being in relationship, whether that be a long-term relationship or simply one of waiting in the same line at the pharmacy. Regardless of the length of interaction or level of intimacy shared, my engagement with every person I encounter each day will influence them in one way or another. This type of power ought not be forgotten.
Why is it that the little things count for so much? Heck, I paid $300 for an airline ticket and then get excited over a $1 can of soda? Is it that I've lost perspective? Forgotten the "big picture"? Am wearing rose-colored glasses? Have a naïve sense of seeing every glass as half-full?
I think not. My experience today of being handed that Dr. Pepper reminds me that the life I live is abundant in its blessedness. And the reason for that is because the people who fill up my life are blessings. May I never forget to treat them as such.
And, please God, may I cooperate with your plan to make me a blessing for all those whose lives I touch today. And tomorrow. And every tomorrow thereafter. Amen.
[Virginia Herbers is an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She has master's degree in pastoral studies and has ministered in education at both the elementary and high school levels in Connecticut, New York, Missouri and Taiwan. She currently serves as the vice-provincial for the United States province of her community.]