Of small things

Watanabe Seitei, c1900. https://aggv.ca/emuseum/objects/18784/mouse-and-grapes

Of the many biases that shape our perception of reality, one that often—ironically so—gets overlooked is our bias against small things. We tend to think that the things that matter and that we should care about are the big things. That makes sense because the big things are, well, big. They take up an oversized part of our lives and therefore our attention span. By big things I mean things like work, family, cars, houses, marriage, birth, death (hopefully not in that order). And while it is nearly undeniable that big things can be important, often this importance is inflated and overshadows a crucial other element of our lives: the small things.1On the importance of the big things: I wouldn’t be in the over-privileged position of being able to write these essays without having some degree of the big things being adequately arranged in my life. Yet rather than seeing it as a Maslowian pyramid, we could see the big things and the small things needing to be balanced in our lives.

What do I mean by the small things? It is the things that tend to go unnoticed at first glance; the things we do not think about as being important or significant, but in fact can often be quite consequential and significant. Or they can just be delightful or pleasurable or somehow beautiful. From a young age we are bullied into believing the only things that truly matter are large, momentous things. We are fed such rank ordure as “Don’t sweat the small things” as if there is any real merit behind that line of thought. We gradually come to believe the superiority of the big things at a cost to our relationship with the world. 

Ignoring the small things in life can have unexpected consequences; the universe seems to take a sort of pleasure in punishing those with the hubris to completely ignore the small things in life. Take, for instance, how intolerable a pebble in one’s shoe is. Each step becomes an acute, painful reminder of the power of the small. It becomes impossible to concentrate on anything else until the situation is resolved and the offending pebble ejected. There are countless other examples of the danger of ignoring the small things: the blunt razor that nicks you every time you swipe your jawline, the tightening of the eye that indicates a loved one was hurt by your comment, a dripping tap, the pot that always burns your goulash and so on. 

Even more fundamentally, and because we should not act out of fear of a consequence, ignoring the small things is to deny ourselves the incredibly rich and sustaining pleasure that reverence thereto can bring. I learnt this lesson as I finally began to take my mental health seriously and sought treatment. Over the course of my early treatment, I realised that respect and attention to the small things was a path to better mental health. I looked around my life for opportunities to become more attuned to the small things in my life. I threw away my old, motley collection of underwear and bought a two-week supply of new ones, all identical pairs. I made small tweaks to how I made coffee in the morning, taking joy in how small changes tasted in the cup. I sorted the things on my bathroom cabinet in a more efficient way. I found nicer dog walking paths. I improved my bedtime rituals. None of these things is of the category that I would consider telling any one—which is ironic because I would be quite delighted to hear about it from someone else, but such is the bias of the big, alas—but goodness me, the pleasure, satisfaction and improvement in my quality of life was truly substantial.  

Conscious attention to the small things is rewarding for a few reasons:

Firstly, it allows us to refocus on that which we can control and not tilt at windmills. I cannot control, or even influence, things like Russia’s brutal, evil invasion of Ukraine, the constant hate directed towards trans-people (trans rights are human rights), the slow destruction of the earth’s climate, or pervasive institutional racism. These are (big) issues I deeply care about, yet I must be realistic about the scope of my control, otherwise I will continue to suffer both at the issues themselves and again at my sense of powerlessness and impotence. 

I can, however, focus on the small things in my life. I can make sure my socks have no holes, that I’m spending a few minutes a day on a foam roller to help my tech neck, or that I offer some feedback to someone who says something intolerant. Focusing on the small is not abandoning the big, rather it is being realistic and accepting my limits. This has been a genuine path to improved mental health for me. 

Secondly, attending to the small things is kind of a super power. It trains you to see the things that are often overlooked or dismissed by others. The world begins to look quite differently through this vantage point. Seeing and paying heed to the small things can be quite magical. It allows one to see connections where others do not, notice things that are otherwise ignored, and be more connected: with the world, with others and with yourself. The magic of everyday life is lost on those who focus only on the big. Take for instance the beauty that is adding cold milk to hot tea, the way the two liquids combine is dramatic, sublime and almost magical. Or the infinitely deep pleasure that is stepping on some crunchy autumn leaves. Yet these moments, and thousands of other such moments, are by and large overlooked, ignored and dismissed. Aside from denying ourselves endless, quiet pleasures, a focus on only the big blinds us to the complexity and wonder of life. It is only by acknowledging the small that we get a sense of the endless variety, complexity, and chaos that makes up life and the universe itself. After all, life is not built by anything big, but rather the accretion of small multitudes.

Thirdly, the small reminds us that we are also small, which is humbling. We often build up our ego and our confidence, through successes at work, gaining age and experience, or just through our natural braggadocious tendencies. Yet the small things are only too happy to remind us we are more like them then perhaps we may wish: think of how humbling discovering a hole in your pants can be. It is only sheer unthinkable cosmic luck that we are the living, sentient beings we are and not pebbles in the socks of other creatures. By respecting the small things in our lives we are acknowledging our kinship with all things small. This mindset, that we are all small things in an infinite web of other small things, has helped me in some of my darker moments. My loudest worries are merely motes in the breeze—here one second, gone forever the next. 

Attending to the small and not getting distracted by the big is a celebration of life itself. If we move our goal posts from caring too much about life’s arbitrary milestones to acknowledging the joy of the small, how can life not be infinitely more wonderful2I hope you enjoy my first and last sportsball metaphor. It was painful to type. The truth is that we are born with a natural regard for the small. Take the way an infant delights in the discovery of their wee little hand. Only the meanest self-denying cynic would not feel a moment of incredible envy for their capacity to experience joy at something so small, so familiar. By attending to our relationship with the small we can begin to recapture a similar sense of joy and delight. Do not ever let yourself be bullied into thinking small things are “childish” and not worth one’s time, attention and love. 

It is a telling indictment of the way late stage capitalism has corrupted modern education that our relationship with small things is often so poor. It is beaten out of us, mostly figuratively but also in some cases literally. Instead of being rewarded for showing attention to the beauty of a bee pollinating a plant, we are punished for not paying attention to a dreary rote learning exercise at school. We are taught a lie that the only things that matter in life, the only things we should treasure and fight for are big things like our careers or owning a house. 

And yet all hope is not lost. As reflecting on the small things teaches us, everything is always changing. You are not the same person as you were when you started reading this essay and I am certainly not the same person as I was when I wrote the first draft. The ever-changing nature of life is splendid news because it means that we can always grow and develop. If you find yourself disconnected from the small things in your life, it is not that hard to change. You might even say it is quite the small thing.  


  • 1
    On the importance of the big things: I wouldn’t be in the over-privileged position of being able to write these essays without having some degree of the big things being adequately arranged in my life. Yet rather than seeing it as a Maslowian pyramid, we could see the big things and the small things needing to be balanced in our lives.
  • 2
    I hope you enjoy my first and last sportsball metaphor. It was painful to type.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.