Little Things

Chapter 39 of Josemaria Escriva’s book The Way concerns the topic of “little things.” The whole chapter, and really the whole book, is worth reading. The text is composed in the form of a set of aphorisms, much like Francis Bacon’s work. I will quote two passages in particular from the chapter in question:

823. Have you seen how that imposing building was built? One brick upon another. Thousands. But, one by one. And bags of cement, one by one. And blocks of stone, each of them insignificant compared with the massive whole. And beams of steel. And men working, the same hours, day after day…

Have you seen how that imposing building was built?… By dint of little things!

826. Everything in which we poor men have a part — even holiness — is a fabric of small trifles which, depending upon one’s intention, can form a magnificent tapestry of heroism or of degradation, of virtues or of sins.

The epic legends always relate extraordinary adventures, but never fail to mix them with homely details about the hero. — May you always attach great importance to the little things. This is the way!

The second passage asserts that anything great in human life is essentially composed of “small trifles.” The first passage explains why this is so. The world is an ordered place, and one of the orders found in it is the order of material causality. Since the whole is greater than the part, it follows that great wholes are ultimately composed of little parts, or in other words, “small trifles.”

We often tend not to notice this in relation to human life, because we think of life as a kind of story, and it is normal for stories to leave out all sorts of detail, in order to concentrate on the overall picture. But all of that detail is always present: every day is made up of 24 hours, and everything we do ultimately is made up of individual immediate actions.

Thus Escriva says that we should “always attach great importance to the little things,” because there is no other way to accomplish anything. For example, someone might be assigned a paper in school, and find himself unable to write the paper, because he is constantly thinking of the need to “write a paper.” But “writing a paper” is not an action that can be chosen; it is just not a thing that can be done immediately. And unless it is first broken down into “little things,” it will never be done at all. This is one of the main causes of procrastination in people’s lives, namely failing to see that the larger goals that they wish to accomplish must be accomplished by means of little things, through individual actions. Thus someone might say, “I don’t know why, but I never feel like writing the paper.” But in fact he does not feel like writing it, because he has not yet presented himself with any option that can ever be chosen.

 

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