Exercise yourself in small things

Exercise yourself in small things.

It’s a simple statement. But think about what it means if you really put it into practice. We are all taught to think big, to dream fantastic dreams, to not settle for less. There’s nothing wrong with that. Keep your dreams and big plans, for they are precious things, aye, keep them close. But few are those who can fly toward their dreams–most of us have to hop, skip, or walk. I, for one, know what it’s like to trudge. In your life, you are bound to meet with disappointment when you cannot realize your plans, when your dreams seem so far away from reality. The gap between your dreams and your reality generates frustration and despair. You taste the bitterness of impossibility. You feel like you’ve been lied to. A sham, a sham, and shame on those who told me fairy tales!

To exercise yourself in small things is to turn your angst to positive ends. It is not a matter of thinking big or thinking small, it’s about conscientiously exercising your ability to act. I say this because it’s all too easy to forget about the trees while looking for the forest. In action, we are more than mere theories, more than dull matter–we are growing beings. Nothing great, said the teacher Epictetus, is produced suddenly, not even a grape or a fig. If you want a fig, it requires time: let it flower first, then put forth fruit, and then ripen. What will your fruit be? Let no one tell you. Move yourself and find out.

If you would move toward your dream, why start looking far off? Start with those things that are closest to you. Leave each place better than when you found it. Want to write a book? Start scribbling a journal, write little stories, jot notes to yourself (like Hugh Prather, Notes to Myself; or J.K. Rowling, who began writing her now-famous Harry Potter books under humble circumstances indeed). Want to be a good parent? Exercise to keep your body fit, read to keep your mind sharp, meditate to deepen your patience, wisdom, and character. Want the world to be a better place? Try your hand at random acts of kindness. Be kind to strangers, because sometimes you’re a stranger too.

Just now I mentioned angst. It is the natural outcome of the gap between ideal and reality. Philosophers and intellectuals seem to have it in spades because they seek a perfect order–reality is worlds away from their inner universe. But angst can visit any person’s life. You don’t have to be a poet to feel lost, helpless as a leaf adrift on the insensate sea.

Tension and anxiety can be a creative forces if you channel them away from your roiling heart and into your works, but too much inner torment will pickle your spirit along with your mind, with your body sure to follow. Lesson learned from a rice cooker: a little hole to let out some steam makes all the difference. So let it out in small things. Let it drive you to create and release into the world that better part of yourself that has been tempered in the fires of your soul. If you fear that the world will not accept you all at once, let it accept you little by little.

Life gets in the way. We don’t all have time for intense projects or great leaps. But we all can afford a little exercise.

Comments welcome!