One fall afternoon, I was trying to get my two small children ready to go for a walk around the block, and every little preparatory step (socks, shoes, coats, etc.) was taking what seemed an eternity to accomplish. My well of patience had run dry, my inner dialogue had gone bitter, and I was ready to scream. My three-year-old daughter and I were grating on each other and my 18-month-old son was unhappy and clingy. It felt ridiculous to let these little things get to me so much, but it also seemed futile to deny that they had built up to the point of overriding my composure. “It’s the little things—they are a big deal,” I thought defeatedly.
Eventually we made it outside. It was one of the first times my son was walking with us instead of riding in the stroller. He toddled along in an alternate rhythm of almost running, then steadying himself in stumbling, slower steps. As we walked, a strong gust of autumn wind rushed noisily through the trees and pushed at his back, upsetting his meager steadiness and spurring him along. He cried out in sheer delight, an uncontainable roar of sorts. And the words came back to me. “It’s the little things—they are a big deal.” I too was bursting with delight at seeing this reaction to something so simple.
That the little things can be a big deal is a reality that cuts both ways: if it hadn’t been such a battle to get out the door that day, I wouldn’t have felt such a depth of gratitude for experiencing the polar opposite along our walk.
Zoom In, Zoom Out
My son’s wonder at the wind that day allowed me to zero in on a small source of joy and beauty that became a key to seeking out similar moments in the months that followed. Here I’d like to tie back into what I wrote last week, about trying to see the bigger picture of the meaning of motherhood. Especially when a family is in “survival mode,” such as the newborn days or times of illness, there may be no intellectual, emotional, or spiritual energy left to throw the anchor down into those truths that can be truly grounding. There is little strength to recall their relevance even if they were familiar at one time, let alone to recognize and express newfound meanings that spring from the experiences of parenthood. Or to use another analogy: it’s one thing to realize that there is a well of meaning there, but something else entirely to drum up the effort to plumb it.
Emerging from those times—which, for me, saw a good deal of spiritual darkness—I’ve realized that, when any kind of gratifying spiritual life feels a distant dream, the things that give me glimpses of God’s presence and light are in the little details—and then in situating these within the grander scope of things. I started to cling to the phrase, “zoom in, zoom out.”
Thinking about motherhood as an experience of the Paschal Mystery is, then, one example of “zooming out” to see the transcendent narrative at work; while remembering my son’s roar of delight is one of “zooming in” to a detail that brings joy, and that in turn points back to the bigger picture of God’s love and care. That day’s frustration and revelation was akin to a mini Easter for me.
A Shared Experience of Survival Mode
To illustrate the way this “mantra” works for me as a mother, a few examples of my internal monologue:
Focus on the little things that, when given even the slightest bit of objective distance, would quickly seem swoon-worthy: knuckle dimples and chin rolls, his belly laugh, the sound of her voice—which somehow seems instantly ten times sweeter as soon as you hear it over the phone—the heavy emphasis he puts on the consonants in new words, the total awe and wonder babies have at the smallest discoveries, like the overcoming nature of a sneeze.
Tap into the bigger picture: Use a hymn or carol for a lullaby, and let its repetition be a comfort (“This is my Father’s World/ Oh let me ne’er forget/ That though the wrong seems oft so strong/ God is the ruler yet”). Think about how big and scary this love is for your kids, and how much it must say about God’s love for us. Consider how truly helpless and dependent God humbled himself to be when he became a newborn like this. Implore Mary’s help, to wrap these little souls in her protection, to open your eyes to what each part of motherly life might look like when filled with grace and wonder.
It doesn’t always cut through the darkness to try to focus on these things, but it’s one way of casting down into the well to see if anything comes back up. And the act of remembering that there is significance inherent both in the big picture and the particularities is at least an act of awareness, one that gives a moment’s pause and pleads with God that what emptiness is there might be filled.
As we’ve passed through various periods of survival mode, I’ve become more realistic about the kind of advice I feel comfortable offering to moms who are preparing for the newborn days with concerns about maintaining some kind of spiritual life. This is what has brought me to share this silly self-talk phrase of “zoom in, zoom out.” It is by no means original in its message (I think of Thérèse and her little way, for instance) but simply one more way I remind myself of the bigger picture and how the little things of life are the very same in which we work out our salvation.
Featured photo: Nathan Put-Fernandez; CC-BY-2.0