“Enjoy the little things in life for one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.”
~ Kurt Vonnegut
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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., (1922-2007) was an American author who, in just over fifty years, published numerous novels, short story collections, plays and works of non-fiction. His most famous novel was Slaughterhouse-Five – published in 1969. After his death, he was remembered as one of America’s most important contemporary writers and as a morbidly comical commentator on American society.
Here’s a quote where it would have been helpful to know the context in which these words were written or spoken. Undoubtedly, the little things as Vonnegut puts it, will mean something different to everyone who thinks about it. I tend to think about the daily happenings – the routine types of things to which we might not give a lot of thought. Perhaps that includes, preparing a meal, cleaning up afterward, shovelling the driveway, mowing the lawn and a myriad of other household tasks that we perform. It could mean a simple outing to the grocery store or to pick up a coffee. And, as I think about it, these daily activities involve interactions with family and friends. The same would apply to routines at our workplace, I would think. None of these things takes a lot of planning and usually doesn’t require a significant emotional investment.
So, how is it that these little things are really the big things in our lives? Two ideas occurred to me as I pondered this question. On the one hand, I thought about tasks that we give little thought to and take for granted our physical ability to perform them. This reality is well understood by anyone who has suffered a major injury that severely curtails their mobility. Until that has healed, one has to rely on others to complete their tasks for them. This inability is no small psychological burden.
I recall, on the 5th of July, 1980, falling one story onto my paved driveway when the unsecured ladder I was climbing down, slid out from under me. I landed on my left forearm, snapping both bones in half. The fall also caused severe bruising of my other arm – so for a few weeks, after I was released from hospital, I could do very little independently. I could walk, but I couldn’t drive until my bruised right arm healed sufficiently. Sleeping with a cast on my left arm for eight weeks was also a challenge. I’ll always remember the day that cast came off and I’d be able to straighten out my left arm… except… I couldn’t. I had to work at that for a few more days, and when I could finally move it normally, it was a grand day indeed. I remember the joy I felt when I could finally do the little things by myself. Yes, joy. Those things weren’t so little after all.
As well, our routines at home and at our place of work do involve other people, unless you are a total recluse. These people at home are our family members – our loved ones. Sitting down for a few minutes to enjoy a cup of coffee with my wife is something I often do at mid-morning, now that we are both retired. It’s just a little thing, after all… and yet, if that person disappears from your life, suddenly; I”m sure that morning cup of coffee would become a big thing. It may well evoke a painful sense of loss as well as some lovely memories of stories swapped and laughter shared.
In the same way, many of us make and receive daily phone calls from dear friends and/or loved ones who are close to us. There is a need to remain in contact often so as not to lose that level of intimacy. Yet how often are those conversations about major issues being experienced by one or the other? Most likely, the overwhelming number of those calls are about inconsequential things – like sharing a bit of news about other family members or mutual friends, funny stories and the like. These calls are valued, certainly, but how many would we classify among the big things in our lives.
Vonnegut is telling us that these are really the big things in our lives. I believe that the measure of a person is in their daily living. It is manifested in how they live their lives. Do I go about my daily tasks with a song in my heart and a smile upon my lips, or do I consider these things just boring routines that I must bear until I can experience the excitement of that party I’m anticipating? Am I thankful to God that I am able to do exactly the kinds of things that are important to me every day without relying on the kindness of another person to assist me? Do I truly treasure the daily contacts I have in person, by phone, or on the Internet?
Here’s one more question which also goes to the heart of Vonnegut’s message. In our daily activities, when alone and with others, are we truly present in the moment? I know that there are times that I get lost in thought about other things and drift through a task without giving it much thought. Have you ever driven somewhere, only to arrive not remembering the trip? Not only is that unsettling from a safety perspective, but it also means that I was not focused on living those moments fully. In effect, they are moments lost. In my sixth decade, I’m painfully aware that my daily contacts with those I care about will end some day, and I know that I cannot afford to lose any moments of my life… because those are numbered. For his reminder about the important things in life, I thank Mr. Kurt Vonnegut.