This life thing is far more complex then I had imagined it would be as a young idealistic boy. In a way though it is also more simple. Idealism was a flop — it’s not about some pie-in-the-sky idea. Pure pragmatism misses the point, the essence of life — we are not machines.
It turns out that it is the way that we do everything that shapes the character of our souls — who we are, what we are all about, why we do anything. It’s not just about the few important highs and lows in our life that matter, it’s about every little thing that happens, every little thing that we experience and do.
That is something I understood as a child, but then forgot as I grew older and began to acquire the responsibilities of adulthood.
I thought life was about the big questions: What is the meaning of life? Will I ever find true love? Can I save the world? Will I ever be rich and famous?
Turns out all those things aren’t necessarily all that important or interesting. What is more important is this: What can I do for someone today to make their lives better? Can I demonstrate my love through my actions? Can I take care of my own piece of the world to make it better? Can I make money doing something that I love day after day without complaining?
And then every day there are the hundred little things: Fixing the toilet, making dinner, taking the dogs on a walk, changing the oil in the truck, sweeping, making lunch, going to work.
Our lives are made up of a billion small things. The best movies and books show us the infinite wonder in all of those small things, and the worst pretend that life is one big romantic adventure where we careen from one explosion to the next.
In real lives the big highs and the big lows occur at random times and are scarce, but all the rest of the stuff that makes up our lives is comprised of small things that we sometimes speed through every day, until we realize that the days have passed so fast that we haven’t experienced any wonder for ages.
It is possible to slow down and sweat the small stuff. Because the small stuff is what matters, and the big stuff will come and go.
We can learn a little about the importance of small things from Chaos Theory, the study of seemingly chaotic natural systems.
Most people have heard of the Butterfly Effect, which simply states that a butterfly flapping its wings in New York can cause a hurricane in China.
Chaos Theory explores in depth the very big changes that can result from the very small differences in initial circumstances.
For example, let’s say it rains one day. The rain collects in the depressions of the footsteps you left as you walked down the side of a sandy hill. The collected rain forms a stream and more rainwater joins the stream, ultimately eroding the side of the hill. Topsoil makes its way down into a river which makes it’s way down to the Gulf of Mexico, contributing its nutrient load to the 7,000 square mile Dead Zone where nothing grows.
So one small walk down the side of a hill can have an impact.
Chaos theory uses mathematics to illustrate this point much more elegantly. But we can all see it in our day to day lives, when we smile at a cashier or take the time to do things right.
Yes, the Dead Zone is a Big Thing, but is merely the result of a hundred million small things.
So really it is each flap of our wings that makes a difference, each step we take, each action we make as we go through the day. It might seem like a lot of responsibility that we don’t want, but it exists whether we want it to or not.
As anybody who has tried to accomplish a “big thing” can tell you, it certainly makes sense to keep our eyes on the rock wall as we climb up the cliff, instead of attempting to understand the whole geology of the area. Each small movement and each breathe contributes to our success as we tackle any big project, and in the end it is the collection of those movements and breathes that make up the majority of our time spent on this earth.