October 19, 2020
When I immigrated to the US from Britain I was regularly asked what I missed from my former home. My answer was always the same: family and the news. I still miss my family, but my tastes have long since adapted to a diet of American news. Moreover, my occasional trips to the UK have shown that my memory of British news from the 1990s is well out-of-date. Today the fare served up as news seems breathless and superficial wherever I go.
There is one item of British news, however, that I still miss. This was a brief daily segment on BBC radio under the heading Thought for the Day. These segments were presented by religious thinkers, often Christian, but including representatives of other faiths such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism. The general approach was to start from a contemporary issue, often drawn from the news, as context for spiritual reflection. One of the most appealing characteristics of Thought for the Day was how similar and profound the messages were, regardless of the faith of the speaker.
One of my favorite thoughts, from speaker I can no longer identify, revolved around the fact that, while we may often dream of achieving magnificent accomplishments, it is the fate of most humans to fill much of their days with small, mundane tasks. The trick was to identify correctly that these small tasks deserve as much time and pride as the bigger aspirational ones that may never fall our way. You can find this idea infused in the mindset of many great people, as evidenced by Martin Luther King’s inspiring “street sweeper” speech. To quote: “What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.’” Having spent a good deal of my younger days sweeping the farmyard, the speech rang very true to me.
I am often reminded of Martin Luther King’s sentiments now as we face so many limitations and restrictions on our lives. We have few grand outlets to spend our time: no fancy meals out, no large parties, no significant travel, and, for some, no means to earn a living. In this time without modern precedent it has helped me to take pleasure and pride in the smaller things I can do, from working in the yard, tidying the house, or being more diligent in staying in touch, remotely of course, with family and friends.
So, I believe, not only should we sweat the small stuff, but we must recognize it as central to our well-being and peace of mind. We cannot rely on the large stuff – it may come around, but it is an infrequent caller.