It’s easier said than done to break habits, especially when you’re rushing somewhere, caught up in life, with everyone you pass seeming so unresponsive. Yet, I hope I’m not in the minority in my belief that the small stuff is exactly what we should be sweating, and that while the end goal is certainly important, we cannot forget the journey.
Last weekend, my mother and I went to visit an old family friend that had watched me grow up. She hadn’t seen me in years, and excitedly took me upstairs to show me something she said she held dear: it was a pastel drawing portrait I had done of her decades earlier, childish both in the brightness of the colours and in the arbitrary application of technique.
I had had no idea the drawing I had done as a child could have had such an impact as to remain framed and admired by her for so many years. But it got me thinking, and it hit me that of all the gifts I have received in my life — and I’m talking material gifts for now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves — I don’t recall all of the expensive electronics that have since died and ended up in piles.
My grandmother, for example, doesn’t see me that often, and when she does, she’s in the habit of piling me with presents. However, the only one that sticks in my mind is one of my deceased grandfather’s medals — something that had cost her nothing, but represented a tiny piece of my family’s history, which I struggle to rediscover.
To get even more abstract, the most impactful experiences can be fleeting moments between strangers, significant for the very reason that they have no knowledge of our lives and (hopefully) no vested interest. A stranger’s smile when we need it most is a beautiful and pure experience; it reminds us how disconnected we have become from the world and from one another, how little of our capacity for change we are using.
Before you peg me as being just a sentimental sap, I am not alone in the belief that we need to return to the basics in order to facilitate change in the world. In 2011, People for Good, a Canadian non-profit organization, started an ad campaign to accomplish their mission of “encouraging Canadians to do everyday good deeds because frankly, our social fabric needs some mending.”
“Real men are measured by the size of their generosity,” reads one poster board. “Want to hear an uplifting story? A guy lets everyone get on the train before him. The end,” says another. The idea is that we focus so much on tangible successes and quantifiable deeds — such as career — that we’ve become, for lack of a better word, assholes to one another.
On the flip side, small things can leave a negative impact, too. Words are not “just words” — apologizing or moving on cannot undo an impression that a small gesture left. Above all, we forget the impact that we can leave with our negligence and our lack of mindfulness.
This may have been filled with inspirational calendar cliches and emotional sentiments, but it’s a genuine plea to the world: we cannot end wars and bigotry in our world if we cannot even look at one another in the eye.
It’s not the grand gestures or the expensive gifts that leave a lasting impact on us. It is a child’s drawing, a compliment — genuine in both its delivery and content — or a stranger’s smile in our darkest hour.