I want to learn all I can, live as wisely as I can, and savor every moment on the journey.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is a common mantra from a famous inspirational book of the same name. Many people, including me, find it helpful to follow this advice and remind ourselves that little stressful things such as traffic encounters and sloppy conversations are “not a big deal.” I say that to myself quite often, especially at work!
But at the same time, small stuff is a very big deal. Small stuff can change everything.
It can change everything in a short-term sense, such as when a crisis occurs and time slows down: after the crisis, we will go back and analyze every tiny detail—every single word spoken and unspoken in a conversation gone sour, every thought, observation, and action leading up to a car accident. The trivial has become the critical—though it was actually critical all along.
Small stuff can also change everything in a long-term sense, as we change (or don’t change) our lives and our habits by changing (or not changing) our small actions. To once again employ that great Annie Dillard quote,
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Also, Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape cites psychological research by Daniel Gilbert and explains:
“What we think will matter often matters much less than we think. Conversely, things we consider trivial can actually impact our lives greatly. If you have ever been impressed by how people often rise to the occasion while experiencing great hardship but can fall to pieces over minor inconveniences, you have seen this principle at work.”
It’s the little things in life that most strongly affect our overall happiness, both instantly and cumulatively.
And this is true for everyone. Through a gradual, nebulous shift in my perspective, I’ve been realizing that everyone else’s lives are made up of small stuff just like mine. We don’t hear all the minutia of a heroine’s life in a novel or movie, but it’s there, real and important, and so it is in mine. I can dream epic dreams, think deep thoughts, and revel in glorious poetry, but life is not all so high; the low, unglamorous, imperfect, and boring details of life matter just as much. Life happens in the small stuff.
So maybe we should embrace the small stuff and let it be important. This doesn’t mean we have to “sweat” and stress over it—maybe this could actually help us calm down. Think of the now-widespread concept of “mindfulness”: as we consciously, observantly focus our attention on little things (such as our breath, the sounds we can hear, or our feelings), we develop a sense of detachment from them that leads to inner clarity and calm.
This is my current theory of equanimity: it’s not telling ourselves “don’t sweat the small stuff” and that little things don’t matter; it’s accepting the small stuff in our lives. Letting the little things matter. Slowing down enough to notice them and caring for ourselves by attending to them. Realizing, for example, that a cup of tea is just as important as a completed to-do list. Taking time to choose our words carefully. Paying attention to details patiently. Allowing stressful moments to be a big deal temporarily so we can address our feelings and move on (though “It’s not a big deal” is nevertheless a soothing mantra in moments of out-of-proportion anxiety or anger). And understanding that the nitty-gritty parts of our lives are just as significant as the big stuff—and being okay with that.