The small daily differences

A few grains at a time, this tiny sand crab dug an impressive hole. Dam Neck, Virginia, June 2014

A few grains at a time, this tiny sand crab dug an impressive hole.
Dam Neck, Virginia, June 2014

“We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.”Marian Wright Edelman

Years ago, during a baseball game when the opposing team kept making small, unexciting advances that led to a big gap in the score, I remember one announcer saying “this is like being nibbled to death by gnats.”  That phrase really stuck with me, because sometimes it seems that 90% of my life (and 99% of my daily time) consists of trivial details.

Just a few examples that may be familiar to you: phone calls to schedule, change or confirm appointments– and thanks to robot callers, I get endless reminder calls for these appointments.  Junk advertising in the U. S. mail, email, or annoying flyers left at the door to blow all over our yards, leaving us to retrieve and recycle them.  Beds to make, breakfast to prepare, bathrooms to clean (or babies to change).  Broken appliances, broken nails, broken promises from handymen who said they’d get right back to us with an estimate.  Do you ever wish just ONE contact would be enough to take care of a seemingly simple matter?

Sometimes it all adds up to a day that exhausts me without leaving me the satisfaction of feeling that I’ve made any real progress on anything that matters.  Then I lose more time to fretting and fuming, distracted and discontent.

At such times I have to remind myself that the process also works the other way around.  As surely as continual small demands eat into our time, so tiny fragments of things accomplished add up too, whether we see it or not.  I might not have gotten anything big done today, but perhaps the dozens of little things I got done aren’t as insignificant as they seem now.  Life, after all, is mostly maintenance, and somebody has to do it.

I think it’s wise to evaluate and re-evaluate where we spend our time, and eliminate whatever “busywork” we can.  But in the end, there will still be a lot of nagging details to attend to.  We can’t very well ignore medical appointments, bills, or essential things that get broken. We’ll always have to spend some time on tasks we aren’t particularly thrilled to be doing.

But we can do these things with a (forced) smile and some fun music in the background, and reward ourselves with a cup of tea after we knock out a few repetitive obligations.  We also  can explore ways to use small gaps of time to address more important things.  In just a few minutes, we can call a loved one who is ill or lonely, send a quick thank-you to a thoughtful person who’s made a difference for us, or make time to appreciate something lovely in our world – a flower, a bird, a favorite photo of someone special.

Most of all, we can remind ourselves not to take too seriously the movies about superheroes who save the world with amazing feats of strength.  In reality, although we all long to do great things, we are mostly called to do little things, again and again, over long periods of time.  This sort of faithful diligence may be as important, or more important, than any accomplishment we hear about on the evening news.

If you find you are being worn down by little things, I hope you’ll grab a few minutes of break time to relax, take a few deep breaths, and reassure yourself that a bit of wheel-spinning is inevitable.  Put yourself on the National Do Not Call Registry, remove your name from junk mail lists, streamline the housework, and take steps to eliminate as many other “gnats” as you can.  Then, tackle the others as you are able, giving yourself permission not to be the world’s most efficient person

Things that are big or beautiful or lasting rarely happen quickly.  Over time, with patience, love and devotion, our faithfulness to small and thankless tasks can build something amazing that we can’t foresee from where we are now.

One year ago today:

The real secret

This post was first published seven years ago today. The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.


  1. Thank you, Julia! I love this:
    “Life, after all, is mostly maintenance, and somebody has to do it.”
    I break a nail so often in getting ready for bed at night that it has crossed my mind to plan in that extra time, as part of my nightly routine!
    Well, that’s one nail that’s unlikely to break the next morning, on the bright side. In the course of two weeks, I’ve pretty much clipped them all!

    • Yes, I always tell myself that if I clip my nails before they get too long, they won’t break off. Then I don’t clip them until one or more of them break. It’s the sort of thing that is hard to prioritize, at least for me.

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