The Small Stuff

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” a truism that needs very little context or explanation. Although it is trite, tired even from overuse, it is true and a good reminder for me, as I stand before four months of commuting several days a week between New York and Connecticut. Long, often frustrating, commutes, complicated by delays and difficult people, require mantras, too. This semester, I am turning my commute into a spiritual practice, fodder for my growth and reflection.

Not sweating small losses is a practice that checks perfectionism. To the perfectionist, details matter, greatly. Attention to details leads to excellence and success, but details, when missed, can feel like disaster and engender shame. For instance, this morning I forgot to buy my train ticket before boarding the Metro North. Then, when I remembered and sat down, I realized my app needed updating. I was subsequently scolded by the train conductor, who mansplained to me how one must purchase a train ticket to ride a train. Instead of feeling ashamed and inadequate, allowing my perfectionism to cripple me on my first morning back at Yale, also thereby giving this man the power to shame me, I decided not to care, not to sweat it, and not to worry about how I needed to be handling my rigorous commute more perfectly.

I went on to have a better day. I felt lighter, having chosen not to carry unnecessary emotional baggage with me. “Ha! Take that small stuff! You don’t upset me!” I thought, feeling proud of myself that I’d waged some sort of inner, emotional revolution sitting right there on a crowded train by retaining my sense of peace and power. I spent the rest of the ride looking out the window, watching the sun rise over the Long Island Sound and cast a pastel pink light over seaside towns with rapt delight. I realized small stuff is not only the keeper of unexpected upset, it is also the material of unexpected treasure. If we are paying careful attention, with discernment, we can find the sacred in the mundane.

The little things that lighten the daily burdens of our human lives are to be celebrated. In the classic movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, the protagonist George Bailey, when he learns he has recovered his life after learning an important spiritual lesson through a series of metaphysical events, bursts into his house and kisses a staircase finial that has been loose for nearly a decade, something that had always annoyed him. With a new perspective, he blesses the most ordinary object, a symbol of his own humanity, experiencing all things beautiful and dull.

In more inspiring settings, it is easier to attune one’s mind to where beauty and truth are revealed in unlikely or ordinary places. When I visit my family in Ohio, I immerse myself in the natural landscape every day I am home, and in all seasons, no matter how frigid the air, I marvel at the mystery that surrounds me. Further, when big, magnificent things happen, we know to look for what is sacred. Like children searching for treasure in a sandbox, we look for the metaphors, the buried truth, writers and philosophers invoked centuries in moments such as these, like a wedding or the birth of a child. Those memories we know will be cherished forever, that the memory of the palpable love we feel will warm us for years to come.

This past weekend, we met my husband’s cousin’s new baby. For months, we had eagerly anticipated this baby’s arrival, elated for the couple we already cared for. In the months leading up to the baby girl’s birth, I was fascinated and consoled by what I witnessed: the love that already enclosed growing life. A life was already loved, not out of reciprocity or expectation, but simply because she existed. To meet this baby was special, and I could feel we all were in the presence of grace. I held her and looked down at her peaceful face, not troubled by the frightening state of the world, wondering, “Who are you going to be, little girl? What are you going to love about the world?”

The health, presence, resilience of her new life was in that moment was astounding. Yet I was also moved deeply by the signs of love that surrounded her parents, it was the love expressed all through small things that reminded me of the strength of the village: the calls of celebration, the blankets sent to swaddle her, the warm food brought and left on the doorstep.

Shedding the small annoying things that weigh us down, the small-scale forms of suffering we must learn to let go, makes room within us to receive more joy and therefore, more wisdom.

“Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” – Mother Teresa