Wednesday, February 12, 2020

This, I believe: the power of small things

A random photo on my phone - I have no idea what it was supposed to be - perhaps a reminder that what is essential is invisible to the eye.

A number of years ago, there was a segment on NPR radio called "This, I Believe" where people from all over the world submitted short essays on what was the core principle of their lives. Over the years, I tried to come up with my version of This, I Believe and today, I think I finally found it.

This, I Believe: There is power in small things. As children, we are taught to recite 'please' and 'thank you' and rather than see the act of saying those words as performative and inconsequential, I think it's the start of understanding gratitude and practicing empathy.

We struggle to thrive in a larger world that is often overwhelming and too often cruel. We are at the mercy of forces we have little control over: it has ever been thus. As individuals, there isn't much any one of us can do to directly affect those large forces and events, which doesn't mean we don't have a responsibility to act. It does mean that our actions must start with the small and the personal.

"What is essential is invisible to the eye."   

This is what the fox says to the boy in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince. It's a line that has always stayed with me. I think of it when I smile at a stranger at the grocery store, or wave a driver into traffic, or thank the server for refilling my water.

None of these acts will stop wars, eliminate racism, provide education and clean air and water or control disease outbreaks.

But if I have the power to ease - even for a brief moment - the struggle of a fellow traveler, then I have added something to the world that is good. Maybe even inoculated that person - just a little bit - against the sting of a hard remark or the next micro-aggression they will experience. 

And, in the words of Arlo Guthrie's immortal "Alice's Restaurant":

And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said
fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice's Restaurant and
walking out. And friends they may thinks it's a movement. 
But instead of singing a bar of the song, it would be fifty people, a hundred people, a thousand people a day saying 'please' and 'thank you', smiling at a stranger, acknowledging the humanity of those around us in so many small, but vital ways, well, that would be a movement.

And none of this takes the place of working for systemic change. But I believe it's a vital underpinning to that change.

Think of each member of the human race like a particular neuron in an infinite neural network. A universal brain, if you will. Every act is an inhibitory or excitatory impulse in that brain. Our small, individual brains function on the sum of all those neurological signals. If there are n+1 excitatory impulses, the neural signal is sent. If there are n+1 inhibitory impulses, the signal is held.

Perhaps our greater world functions similarly, with the sum total of positive and negative actions influencing the large forces that in turn create the conditions in which we live.

This is not magical thinking.

Think of one moment when you received a small grace, a tiny respite from the morass of your day's fight. It could have been as simple as a friend showing up with a coffee for you, unexpectedly. Or a letter in the mail. Or someone letting you go ahead in the grocery line. Think of how those small moments resonate and change you. How they lift you from the river bottom and the rocks. These moments, as brief and as fleeting as they are, are not inconsequential. No, they are vital and they are essential, and for the most part, they are invisible to the eye.

There is power in small things. Not to change the world, but to change each of us. And that is the only way we will change the world. This, I believe.

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