November 11, 2019

The Power of Small Deeds

St. Teresa of Calcutta reportedly said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” The thought is inspiring, but it raises two questions, “What kinds of ‘small things’ does it apply to?” and “How will those actions benefit us and others?” The following thoughts may help answer them.

While with other people, show respect and interest by maintaining eye contact and resisting the lure of distraction. This is perhaps the most obvious of small actions, but it has become the most difficult to practice. Our cell phones  incessantly ding away our attention and interest, and many of us are in the habit of looking at them even when they are silent, in anticipation of a message. In such cases we convey disinterest in the other person, even if we do not intend to.

Listen carefully and patiently to what others say, especially when you disagree with them. In this quarrelsome age, the automatic reaction to disagreement is to stop listening to the other person and begin framing our retort. When we do this, we have little chance of understanding what is being said. And the more carefully expressed and nuanced the other person’s words are, the less relevant and meaningful our reply is likely to be and the more exasperated the other person will be with us.

To avoid the automatic reaction, forgo framing your response until after the other person has finished expressing her idea and you are sure you understand it. If you do not understand it, ask for clarification. This will demonstrate courtesy and increase the chances that a) she will reciprocate the courtesy and listen carefully to you when you speak and b) what you say will be worth hearing.

Find ways to think positively about others. To be sure, some people’s behavior makes this difficult, but at very least you can interpret that behavior generously. Begin by withholding judgment until you have asked yourself these questions: Is the person’s bad behavior untypical of her or typical? If untypical, could she be dealing with a health issue? A difficulty in her marriage or in her place of work? A financial problem? If typical, what in her background could have contributed to her bad habit? Some problem in her family life? A traumatic experience in school or at work? The very act of asking such questions will make it easier for you to give the person the benefit of the doubt.

When you receive a gift, even a small one, express your appreciation and do so promptly and sincerely. I mean “gift” in the broadest sense, as anything someone offers out of kindness rather than obligation—a birthday present, a card or letter, a favor, a simple courtesy, and of course, the cornucopia of things God has given us, beginning with the gift of our existence. I say, “do so promptly” because the longer we wait to express appreciation, the greater our tendency will be to take gifts for granted.

This small habit will not only make the gift-giver feel appreciated; it will also heighten your awareness of people’s thoughtfulness and motivate you to be as generous to others as they are to you.

Forgive those who offend you. Forgiveness may seem a small virtue but in reality it is among the most important of virtues. After all, the Lord’s Prayer links it to our very salvation. Every time we recite it, we ask to be forgiven no more generously than we forgive others.

When someone’s treatment of you seems unforgivable, put aside your hurt for a moment, recall the times you have offended others just as grievously, or even more so, and remember Jesus’ admonition. If you have reason to believe the other person will not receive your expression of forgiveness well—for example, if he will think, “Why am I being forgiven when I did nothing wrong?”—express your forgiveness silently, through kindness and friendliness rather than in words.

Apologize whenever you hurt another person, even unintentionally. The greater the offense, the more fulsome the apology should be. The timing of the apology is also important. The longer you wait, the more your excuses for not apologizing will multiply and harden. You will first minimize the seriousness of the offense and then pretend it never happened or, worse, that you were the victim rather than the perpetrator. Torturing reality in this way never changes it. Nor does it free you from the responsibility for your offense. In contrast, admitting the offense and asking for forgiveness relieves the conscience and brings peace.

Some people persuade themselves that apologizing to God is sufficient and there is no need to apologize to others. But Jesus expressly rejected that reasoning, stating that we should go first to the person we wronged. (Matt 5:23-24)

Avoid unpromising conversations whenever possible. The most unpromising conversations these days are about politics and religion. The reason is not that the subjects are unimportant but quite the reverse—they are so important that people tend to be blindly passionate about them and defensive when their views are challenged.

It is by no means easy to avoid such conversations—they have a way of arising even when all parties have silently resolved to themselves not to let that happen. Therefore, if you can’t avoid them, at least engage in them wisely. Expect strong differences of opinion and approach them as opportunities to learn what others think and why, rather than as challenges to change minds and win converts to one’s perspective. Focus on listening more than speaking, and when you do speak, be matter of fact—“this is what I believe and here is why”—without being either aggressive or defensive.

Overcome rudeness with kindness. We live in an age of rudeness and the best way to cope with it successfully is to expect it to occur in any situation and at any time. Regard every rude statement or act as your personal challenge to practice good manners. Keep thoughts like these at the ready to guide your response: “This person may not know the proper way to behave, and that is sad. On the other hand, he may know how to behave but choose not to do so, and that is even sadder. But saddest of all would be my missing the opportunity to demonstrate kindness.”

Make other people’s jobs more pleasant for them. Most of us encounter many other people every day: drivers of taxicabs or buses, store personnel, bank officials, grocery clerks, post office employees, waiters or waitresses. If you are a busy person, you may approach these encounters with this attitude: “These people are here to serve me and I’m in a hurry, so they’d better be fast and efficient or they’re going to hear about it.” That attitude may or may not result in a complaint, but it almost certainly will not result in a happy experience for you or the other person.

A much better attitude is this: “The majority of the people I encounter today will be much like me, striving to provide for their families, pay their bills, and find meaning in life. How they perform their jobs will reflect well or poorly on them. But the way I react to them will reflect well or poorly on me. If I am friendly, cheerful, and patient, I will be encouraging them to find more enjoyment in what they do and to do it better.”

These few ideas, I believe, illustrate what Saint Teresa meant by doing small things with great love. The power lies in the positive effects on everyone. Recipients are shown the value of practicing small virtues. Doers are encouraged to strive for even greater ones.

The meaning of Saint Teresa’s words goes even deeper. Though as she said, most of us can do only small things and not great ones, when multiplied, small things can become a great thing. In the case of modern culture, this may be the only way civility and mutual respect can be restored. The journey to that goal will not be easy, but as Confucius long ago observed, even the greatest of journeys begins with a single step.

Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
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