Big and Small

My friend Tom Friedland phoned this morning to tell me about a David Brooks editorial in the NY Times. “It’s about Mr. Rogers and his views on big and small. Thought you’d be interested.”

As soon as I got home, I opened the paper, and read the piece. “Rogers dedicated a week’s worth of shows to the theme of ‘Little and Big’ on how little things can be done with great care,” Brooks wrote.

Reading this, I was happy to be reminded of a quote attributed to Mother Theresa: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” As part of my publicity campaign for my new book, I had bookmarkers made with quotes about small by well-known thinkers. One of the bookmarks holds this quote by Mother Theresa. I’ve always loved it, but realized today, that I had never understood it fully.

I had always thought she meant that doing even a small thing with great love makes it important. Many of the quotes I gathered about small capture this meaning, expressing the paradox that something small can turn out to have large consequences. John Dryden intends us to understand this, when he says, “Mighty things from small beginnings grow.”

But this morning, I received Mother Theresa’s quote in a quite different way. I understood that when we undertake something large, the quality of our attention might suffer. It’s difficult to be fully mindful of the multiplicity of components in a giant project. Our mind and eyes cannot take in everything equally at once.

However, if we choose a small, uncomplicated goal, we are able to pay close and deep attention to every single part of it. And bestowing that kind of close and deep attention, we are indeed communicating our love to whatever we are trying to accomplish.

In my book, “Small: The Little We Need for Happiness,” I write about the Thanksgiving I decided to think small about our holiday dinner. Instead of cramming all my preparations into just a few days, I began well in advance, with just the cranberry sauce. For the first time, I was able to observe all the hues of the berries themselves—from cranberry to light rose—and to listen to all the sounds of the berries as they cooked—from popping and gurgling, all the way to hissing. My evening became a symphony of sound and a palette of colors, and I was able to notice and appreciate all the variations. By the time the cranberries had cooked and combined into a bowl of glistening cranberry sauce, I felt I had participated in a communion.

Reading David Brooks’ editorial today, I think this must be what Mother Theresa had in mind when she advised doing small things with great love!

Peeling Paint

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