Sunday, April 11, 2010

Appreciating Little Signs of Progress

Most of us want to do big things. We’re led to believe that is what matters. Make a splash, grab a headline, make a lot of money, cure AIDS, turn 100 heads as we walk by. Make a difference. It’s why I’ve always loved the saying by Mother Teresa:

“We cannot do great things in this world, only small things with great love.”

And so it is with our growth. We look to make great leaps and that’s fine. Shoot for the stars, it’s the only way you’ll get there or even close. And at the same time, so many important moments come in tiny steps, a certain look of compassion, the one time, when you don’t respond the way you almost always do, a day when you eat more fruit and green vegetables. As a therapist, you are not always the vehicle to a certain outcome. Sometimes, that outcome is far away, and what you can contribute is to the quality of the process, a different experience along the way, or maybe one new opening in the mind and heart of another. You are contributing, and others will too, maybe down the line, another therapist will see the outcome.
I believe that all of us know a great deal, even if we do not always have access to what we know. Much of what is needed is to remember, keep remembering, and to practice, and keep practicing. And so recently, I noticed one of those small steps in my own growth -- nothing earth shattering, and yet something in which I find pleasure, a sense of goodness.

In certain neighborhoods, certain regions of the country, strangers acknowledge each other as they cross paths, as a matter of human courtesy. Most times, especially in big cities, strangers may look at each other as they pass and that’s it. Every now and then there’s the exception. In the past, when I have extended myself to be the exception, and the human being ignores me, I have felt one or more of these feelings: foolish, devalued, miffed. Courtesy and respect were BIG in my household growing up -- it’s downright rude and disrespectful to not return a greeting that is respectful. When my friendliness was not returned I wished I hadn’t extended myself.
And yet, I didn’t like the tit for tat attitude either. There is something valuable about extending a friendly greeting, period, the feeling of good will. . I aspire to get to that place, where I may be disappointed that a greeting isn’t returned, but that I don’t feel diminished by it and I don’t regret having extended myself.
A few days ago, I got a glimpse of it. No one else was on the sidewalk when I and a Black man, who looked like he may have been from the Caribbean, approached each other.

“Good morning,” I said.

He looked at me, his eyes rather piercing, and his face like stone, as we passed each other. I wondered about him. I did not feel foolish or regretful. I felt good. I spoke because that’s how I wanted to be in that moment. It’s been easier for me to know the satisfaction of taking a stand on big things, to represent my vision, my values, whether or not it will change anything. It’s been a matter of principle.
But even in small things, I am practicing to see the value of being who I am unconditionally.

Photo courtesy of Bernadine Tolbert

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