Living: a Collection of Small Details

Small details comprise a morning and a life. This is what Emily St. John Mandel writes in her book, the apocalyptic masterpiece Station Eleven, as she describes the final morning of the catalytic character, Arthur Leander:

He closed the fridge door, made his last breakfast – scrambled eggs – and showered, dressed, combed his hair, left for the theatre an hour early so he’d have time to linger with a newspaper over his second-to-last coffee at his favourite coffee place, all of the small details that comprise a morning, a life.

Cheery, right? My desire to share this definitely confirms my status as a much sought after dinner guest and conversationalist. Or sci-fi nerd.

I found this passage haunting, elegiac, and strangely comforting with its message. Savour the small details. Remember that these details make up a life.

We all know this. But to be fair it is awfully hard to implement. Far easier to be annoyed by the tiny tasks on our plate, especially when we see them as interfering with the big, important stuff that we really want to do.

So this post honours the small details of life, the innumerable trivial occurrences that are in fact not innumerable at all, and each precious, because one day there will be no more. Below are my four suggestions for how we might savour these moments; the alternative, at least for me, is to miss them or to actively resent their intrusion. Which is a funny way to treat my life, if you think about it.

Be present

No surprises here. To be accurate, this is not a suggestion but rather the prerequisite state for savouring the small details of living. Savouring can only be done in the present; it is the only way to access the richness of the experience. And even if the experience is unpleasant, how else can you creatively and meaningfully respond to what is going on?

Some, such as Eckhart Tolle, would argue that now is the only state that truly exists. I happen to agree, but you don’t need to bend your mind around this. Sure, you could argue that your imagination would do a better job than reality, but – leaving Walter Mitty type disorders aside – can that truly compare to laughing with abandon or being immersed in a state of flow as the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes?

A good place to start? Curb your ambition. It sounds wonderful to be present all the time, but the mind will generate thought, as it is designed to do, and this can often drag us back into the past or create imaginings about the future.

The problem is that this type of thinking is useful less often than you would think. Thoughts can be repetitive. As critical as a women’s fashion magazine. As useful as Trump interpreting a graph. Moreover, the body will react to what you are thinking. It just gets confused when you turn up to your administrative law exam and there is no sabre-tooth tiger to justify the adrenaline the mind was convinced was required. (Although I kind of wish a tiger had turned out to that exam, it was terrible.)

So don’t aim for a day. Or even an hour or a minute. Aim for a few seconds. Accept that the mind will happily scamper off with all the focus of a toddler tripping on red candy. Cool. When that happens, gently bring the mind back to the present, again and again. You become stronger and more practised every time you bring the mind back. Then you will start to notice how many small but potentially delightful experiences – say, sipping a coffee – are liable to slip into mindless, mechanical motion.

Consider small adjustments

All well and good, but what if your collection of small details are genuinely shoddy? Well, being present does not require that you passively accept an unacceptable state of affairs. As an aside, this unfortunately is the part that most corporate mindfulness initiatives miss; yes, you should be mindful (more productive), but hah! no, we will not make any structural changes – like when my old firm suggested that we, a bunch of out of shape and overworked lawyers, should exercise more and increase billable hours. At this stage, you might want to consider making your own small adjustments.

Of course, a small adjustment may not be sufficient and dramatic change could well be required, leading you to quit law in the middle of the next great economic recession while living overseas on a working visa, just like me. (Dramatic change and my life planning skills I think is the subject for another post.) Hopefully that is not necessary, because what is overlooked, time and time again, is the impact of a small adjustment. Then imagine adding up the impact of a number of small adjustments over time and in combination – this could change your life.

My coaching course creator Martha Beck suggests using the Three B’s to correct your course if any of the activities in your daily schedule make you feel heavy, revolted or weak (tip: consciously picture doing each task and notice how your body responds). The Three B’s are: either bag an uninspiring activity (organising your paper clips by colour can indeed wait); barter it (perhaps your partner can do your hated chore in exchange for you doing a chore you don’t really mind); or better the activity by adding things you enjoy (play your favourite music while sorting paper clips).

Changing your mindset from resentment to creation has these additional benefits:

  • showing you the places in which you are empowered to alter the course of your life, rather than diverting all that energy into an Eeyore-inspired sulk;
  • enabling you to see clearly the trade that you have in fact made. You might hate doing the laundry and be resigned to the fact that it must be done by you, but wearing clean clothes definitely makes it easier to flirt with the coffee guy.

Finally, let me introduce you to a rule that has served me well over the years. Unless forced to, I never think about difficult or distressing subject matter (like what can be read into my inability to keep houseplants alive) when I am tired or stressed. Everything feels like too much and the only plan I am likely to make is to give up, or at least I would do so if I had the energy and self-respect to make a decision. The problem doesn’t change if I defer it to another time, but I do. Having bandwidth can make all the difference to your ability to gainfully tackle an issue, so it could be that your small adjustment is all about timing.

Practise gratitude

I’m sure that if we all practised gratitude then we would become better people, but this suggestion is actually about tweaking your radar. That is to say, noticing more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff. Obviously, we do not and cannot process all of the information presented to us; but luckily there is an option to strengthen your ability to take note of what delights and inspires you, thereby improving your life. And a lot of this vests in – you got it – the little details.

If you need a refresher on how powerful our ability to focus can be, I suggest you watch this study:

To be clear, I am not talking about turning a blind eye to the injustices of this world. We must look deeply into the eyes of such horrors; the most uncomfortable aspect being that what concerns us externally is usually mirrored in some form internally. But when we do, our focus can again shift. Instead of finding an enemy to hate, control or destroy, we can look at how the situation is challenging us to become better, more compassionate, more egalitarian, aware, creative, kind.

To develop my gratitude muscle, I like to list the things I am grateful for whenever I am waiting for whatever form of London transport has just been delayed. Today’s list includes: having a good night’s sleep, eating a super crunchy apple, the comment I got on my last post (somebody actually read it!), the fact that I am just very behind but no longer chronically behind in responding to texts and emails, the amazing ability that my legs have to convey me around to places I want to go (usually coffee shops), coffee shops and my recent discovery of Mirna Valerio (trail and ultra runner, anti-racist activist). If you get creative and go for quantity, that list will never end.

Question the assumption that small means unimportant

We have trouble valuing the little things. We think that in order to have a meaningful life, we must do important things with maximum reach and impact.

But what if, instead of creating a fan-base of millions, you created the perfect garden. Who is to say that is not exactly what your neighbourhood needs? I once had a friend say to me that he wanted to do something meaningful with his life. But I knew that friend to be kind and generous – a rare, true friend – and it struck me that perhaps he had already done so. Supporting and positively altering the lives of all those he meets.

Sometimes it is not about doing anything at all but about the quality of being. The best caregivers know this; it is about human connection and keeping company in suffering, not about finding the perfect thing to say or do. This is staggeringly important and yet our culture remains obsessed about productivity, even if that leads to reckless, runaway, mutative growth. It is a productivity mindset that would measure the minutes a caregiver spent with somebody and require them to fill out forms, detailing what they had achieved during that time.

Very conveniently for me, Charles Eisenstein has written a beautiful essay, The Age of We Need Each Other, on our cultural obsession with big impact. His realisation is as follows:

…our concepts of big impact versus small impact are part of what needs to be healed. Our culture validates and celebrates those who are out there with big platforms speaking to millions of people, while ignoring those who do humble, quiet work, taking care of just one sick person, one child, or one small place on this earth.

When I meet one of these people, I know that their impact doesn’t depend on their kind action going viral on the internet and reaching millions of people. Even if no one ever knows and no one ever thanks them for taking in that old woman with dementia and sacrificing a normal life to care for her, that choice sends ripples outward through the fabric of causality. On a five hundred or five thousand year timescale, the impact is no smaller than anything a President does.

The above suggests that we could revisit our notions of big and small impact, but ultimately it is about giving up big impact as our object. We could simply do our work well, with love and in service. And whether that has big or small impact should be unconnected to our motivation and is wholly unconnected to our importance.

Let me conclude by saying good luck to Extinction Rebellion as they march in the streets of London, this weekend, kicking off the next phase of rebellion!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: