I’ve never read a word of Richard Carlson’s viral self-help series, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s All Small Stuff, so let me be clear at the onset – I am not taking issue with the notion that life might be best spent learning how to discern what’s worth worrying about. Indeed, as a worrier, I would save myself a lot of trouble if I learned how to let go of things that just aren’t helpful to me. Bad habits, bad relationships, and bad moods need no place in my life, though they do rear their ugly heads at times.
But, given our Jesuit 101 Series turn toward consolation and desolation, I want to offer you a hard-earned lesson in my spiritual life: we have to sweat the small stuff, because many times, the small stuff is where the good and evil spirit are at work. There aren’t many folks who would disagree that profound tragedy or hardship can be a playground for the evil spirit, but in a world that deeply values resilience and strength and steadfastness, I can be too quick to ignore small things that wear me down over time. Loss and joy come in many forms, large and small – death and new life, breakups and new love, an hour stolen from overscheduling or a canceled meeting and the gift of time. The spirits are at work in all of it, in grand and elusive ways, pulling me toward darkness or light.
Let me give you two simple examples of times when attunement to the small stuff was invaluable to the discernment of spirits, and ultimately, to a life rooted in consolation.
My professional life has included a lot of work with college students, and it’s not uncommon that the ups and downs of college students’ lives can be extreme. I feel exhausted just thinking about the pace at which they live – up late and up early, double (or even triple) majors with a schmear of unrelated minors, stress about romantic relationships, roommate issues, moral dilemmas, more meetings than anyone deserves, and of course, the pending doom of adulthood – rent, resumes, the ‘real’ world.
So, college students would often darken my door, a tidal wave of stress following in their wake. Desolation abounded – the refrain was as memorable as the hook of any pop song: I’m a burden, I’m not worthy, I’m no good, I’ve screwed everything up. Hearing this time and time again was heartbreaking. Nothing I could ever say, no advice I could ever give, no proof I could ever provide would console them in these real and dark moments.
So, I learned over time that the first questions I’d ask had to be simple – small, even.
“When’s the last time you ate a full meal?” Often, it had been a while. So, we’d get breakfast or lunch or a hearty snack.
“How much sleep did you get last night?” Often, it wasn’t much. So, I’d help them find a quiet place where they could take a moment of pause, close their eyes, and rest, if only for a moment.
Non-negotiables: a term my friend Bobby offered me that has lingered in my Jesuit life, and is especially helpful when the evil spirit prowls and desolation abounds. For me, it’s daily exercise and prayer. If those two things happen, it’s usually a decent day, and I can keep things in perspective. My way of being is more right than wrong with the world. For some of my students, a good meal and enough sleep.
What’s tough, though – a busy life (which we all have to some degree) means that our non-negotiables are usually the first things we negotiate out of our day. My non-negotiables might be the first things to go because I wrongly think of them as luxuries, and not priorities. I think of them as selfish when I could be helping someone else with the hour I spend in the gym or in prayer. But, self-care is real and necessary. Once I figured out my non-negotiables, I started strengthening myself not to sacrifice them.
Day to day, missing a meal or getting too little sleep or skipping the gym or not praying may not seem like a big deal, but the residue builds up. Sweat the nonnegotiables, no matter how small they may be.
Say what you want about the Trump administration, but it generated quite a news cycle. There was no telling what kind of stories would bubble up throughout the course of a day, what tweets would break the Internet, who the latest name was in the frequent hiring and firing at the White House. That kind of wild uncertainty kept me checking my social media constantly throughout the day and into the night. And I know I’m not the only one who struggles against this obsessive tendency.
A friend told me once that he hadn’t been sleeping well for some time. After pondering, he started paying closer attention to even the smallest parts of his day to see whether the truth behind his sad state of sleeping was somewhere out there. In this examination of his typical day, he realized that he consumed most of his news before bed. While he lay there, YouTube and tweets filling his eyes and mind just before sleep came, something jarred him time and time again. So, he stopped. He cut screens out of his life before bed, and started taking time to catch up on the news in the morning. He started sleeping better, which meant he was more well rested, which meant that he was gentler with everyone, which meant that the world surrounding him was a better place. This small thing – no news before bed – led to greater consolation.
If you don’t have to sweat the small stuff, then by all means – don’t. If consolation abounds in your life, let good things run wild. But, if you’re anything like me, the small stuff is where the evil spirit can do its most damaging work. A dishwasher unemptied, a stubbed toe, a lost pair of headphones, a text from someone you’d rather not talk to, 5 (or 50 or 5,000) unread emails in your inbox, a broken guitar string, an errand you don’t have time for, a parking ticket, a cardboard box thrown out and not recycled, a parking ticket, a glance around your messy room, a stack of papers you need to file, an assignment due that you have no motivation for, a piece of pizza you were hoping to eat that goes missing, your favorite pen out of ink, an unexpected memory from years ago that resurfaces, missing breakfast, news before bed, a bad night’s sleep – the small stuff. Stuff which, when left unnoticed and unattended, can be a place where desolation takes hold and the evil spirit works to bring you down.
When it comes to consolation and desolation – sweat the small stuff. You’ll learn something about yourself, and most certainly about God.