Small Acts Can Produce Large Effects
I’m reading a wonderful book: “In Pursuit of Silence, by George Prochnik. In the book, Prochnik, who is extremely sensitive to noise, seeks both silence itself and its effects on humans.
This might be an excellent companion for small, I thought when I saw the volume lying on a table at de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Perhaps to pursue small successfully, we need quiet. Surrounded by the racket of our everyday life, it’s nearly impossible to focus on much of anything.
As soon as I began reading, I realized how right I was about small and silence. Within the first few pages of the introduction, Prochnik writes about going to a Quaker meeting, where those attending sit in silence for a time, followed by individuals who feel inspired rising to speak. At one point, a middle-aged man arose and said, ,”How much we know and how little we do.” Then launched into a parable about how the desire to save the whole world can be an impediment to taking even one small action to improve it.
Reading this, I recalled an experience that led to one of the essays in “Small”: One of my neighbors had died unexpectedly, and another neighbor had rescued the cat, who had a reputation for being very neurotic. For weeks, this neighbor tried to calm and reassure the cat, who had clawed her way into the guest bed mattress and wouldn’t come out.
“I so wanted to do this, both for Beverly and the cat,” my neighbor told me. “But in the end, it wasn’t sustainable. At least I gave it the good old college try.”
For weeks after this conversation, I worried about my lack of charity. While I know that I have compassion for anybody or any creature suffering, I’ve never even offered to do something as grand as rescue a cat. And I certainly wouldn’t have tolerated the cat’s behavior for half as long as my neighbor.
I thought about my close friends. One had given thousands of dollars to save an old family friend from destitution. Another had cancelled her own life to make an impromptu trip to help a nephew at a difficult time in his life. Yet another had invited fire victims to share her home until they got back on their feet.
In the midst of my hand wringing, a client who had gone to heroic lengths to help her mentally-ill son, came to an appointment. “I’m feeling very nauseated, so I won’t get close to you. I know you’re leaving on a trip in a few days.”
I appreciated this client’s concern, but her thoughtfulness didn’t surprise me. Until the next morning, when she left me a telephone message: “I just wanted you to know that I feel great today. My nausea yesterday was caused by a smoothie full of supplements I had for breakfast. You don’t have to worry about catching anything from me.”
At that moment I realized how wrong my thinking had been. Self-sacrifice and great heroism are not necessary. Even the smallest act of kindness can have a large impact. That’s what the man at the Quaker meeting meant. Our actions don’t have to be huge to produce an important effect. I know that after my client’s phone message, I felt very cared for. What can be larger than that?