Little things do count. Sometimes they are all we have. "What can we do?" is a question we're hearing a lot these days. What can we do for peace when the Bush Administration seems intent on war in Iraq and says that mass protests are nothing more than "focus groups"? What can we do to protect the Earth when international treaties and national laws established to protect the environment are being trashed or circumvented? What can we do for animals, like the 36 (yes, 36) Mexican grey wolves still left in the wild? In our neighborhoods, what can we do about a near epidemic of incivility and lack of respect for others?

Spiritual teachers have long been interested in this question. They agree that what's important is that we do something, even if it seems to be just a little thing. Consider these perspectives:

  • "Do not underestimate good, thinking it will not affect you. Dripping water can fill a pitcher, drop by drop; one who is wise is filled with good, even if one accumulates it little by little."
    — Buddha
  • "Life consists of these little things; and it is by putting other people first every day in a thousand little acts of kindness that we make ourselves perfect in love."
    — Eknath Easwaran
  • "Jesus always leads us to littleness. It is the place where misery and mercy meet. It is the place where we encounter God."
    — Jean Vanier

Catholic writer Edward Hays, recalling one of the teachings of Jesus, calls this "mustard seed vision" — the ability to see that everything rests on the small. The details of our activities and our relationships are like mustard seeds. They may seem small, but they have the potential to grow into something much larger.

Just as through spiritual literacy, we change our perspective to see the essential unity in the world around us, through little acts of kindness we reorient our behavior so that we are more consistently acting for the common good.

Book Excerpts

Our readings focus on courtesy as one of the little things that can make a difference in our world. All the religions offer us models for the cultivation of character, moral excellence, and civility.

  • Peter Reinhart on Courtesy in Relationships
    Reinhart, a chef, bread-maker, and lay brother in an Eastern Orthodox service order, believes that courtesy is how we manifest the realization that we — and others — are made in the image and likeness of God. It is how we acknowledge someone else's importance and worth.
  • Sister M. Mercedes on Good Manners
    In her classic A Book of Courtesy, this Dominican sister salutes good manners as an art form and as a grace. She contends that sympathy, sensitivity, and tact are part and parcel of helping others feel at ease. When courtesy emanates from the heart, it can help smooth the rough edges of life and bring people closer together.

Spiritual Practices

You can bring peace and healing into your home and workplace by practicing courtesy. Here are two ways to practice this little virtue.

  • Bo Lozoff on Civilizing Your World
    Lozoff, co-founder of the Human Kindness Project, outlines a strategy for practicing civility, beginning with your own lifestyle. For encouragement, also read his statement on the saying "We can do hard," included in our review of his book It's a Meaningful Life: It Just Takes Practice.
  • Jan Lawry on Soup Nights
    A Spiritual Literacy in Wartime e-course participant sent us an email in response to last week's lesson on facing fear. We think it is a wonderful example of how a little thing can help. Here's Jan's email:

Dear Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat,

I thought I would share with you what I do to counter fear. I open my home up to friends and colleagues for what I call Soup Nights. I make big pots of soup and others bring bread, salad, and dessert, and everyone helps themselves and shares in this simple meal.

Each of us also brings a poem, prayer, story, or song to share that nourishes our spirits. After eating, we sit in a circle in my living room and listen to these. We create a "war-talk & politics free zone" for the time we are together. Truly, it leaves us feeling refreshed and centered.

I began holding Soup Nights shortly after Sept 11th, 2001, and did it weekly for several months. I have just resumed doing it to help counter my own fears created by the news of the impending war. Last week two of my friends read wonderful children's stories to us, including I'm in Charge of Celebrations by Byrd Baylor in which a young American Indian girl talks about how she celebrates the wondrous things she notices as she spends time walking through her world in the Southwest.

After listening to the story, we all remembered things we celebrated as children that gave us pleasure and joy — the first autumn day cold enough to wear a sweatshirt, the scent of freshly cut hay in the barn, etc.

Soup nights have proven to be a great antidote to the fear habit, and one that you are welcome to pass along in one of your suggested practices. Thanks again for creating messages to counter the fear.

Jan Lawry

And thank you, Jan!