When I’m Overwhelmed, I Remember These Words.
Photo by Floral Deco
If you’d rather listen than read, visit Sound Insight, Season 2 episode 16.
“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”Attributed to Mother Teresa.
I can’t remember the first time I heard these words, but I do remember their impact on me.
I felt this sense of both relief and peace wash over me. Like someone found me wandering in the wilderness and pointed to a path that had been there all along.
Since then, these words have become like a north star for my life. Whenever I’m overwhelmed or feeling lost, I remind myself, “small things with great love.”
Why this resonates.
I have always seen these words as a kind of recipe for making a difference in the world. But recently, I’ve begun to see another, complementary meaning.
I’ve been listening to the Huberman Lab, a podcast by Dr. Andrew Huberman that focuses on science and evidenced-based strategies for health and well-being. He recently aired a series on mental health with psychiatrist Dr. Paul Conti.
At the beginning of their conversation, Huberman asked: “What constitutes a healthy self?”
Conti responded: “A healthy self approaches life through the lens of agency and gratitude.”
He explained that when we grow our self-awareness, we begin to understand the complexity of who we are and how much of our self operates beyond our conscious awareness. This elicits a respect and humility for what it means to be human. It also elicits a sense of empowerment as we learn how we can act to improve our lives and our well-being.
Conti says that humility and empowerment in action become agency and gratitude. And as we move forward with agency and gratitude, they begin to become a kind of default way of being in the world that supports our health and wellbeing.
“When we look at measures of human happiness across disciplines and across time, this is always what we see. Some way of describing how agency and gratitude manifest… to create happiness.”Dr. Paul Conti, from an interview on the Huberman Lab podcast.
As I thought about my work with leaders over the last two decades, this made sense to me and was consistent with my experience. At the same time, it seemed to me that there was something more to add to this picture of psychological wellbeing.
In my experience, those leaders who were most resourceful and effective operated from a place of agency. Those who were most trusted and admired operated from a place of humility. And those who were happiest, navigated their lives with agency, humility, and connectedness with others.
It struck me that each of these ways of being in the world are reflected in the saying, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
Humility – we can do no great things.
How does the assertion, we can do no great things, sit with you? Does it seem to go against your values? Our western culture values, sometimes even reveres, individualism, exceptionalism, and achievement? We admire people we believe can do great things.
But great things are often the result of small things done over time and they are almost never achieved alone.
Our desire to do great things, our search for our calling and purpose, and our focus on making the most of our time on this planet are motivating and inspiring. However, sometimes they are also overwhelming and paralyzing, particularly when our egos and our sense of self worth become entangled with them.
As Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals says, “The hazard in any such discussion of “what matters most” in life… is that it tends to give rise to a kind of paralyzing grandiosity. It starts to feel as though it’s your duty to find something truly consequential to do with your time…”
This sometimes shows up for me when I’m trying to write. It rarely helps me to ponder too much about whether my efforts will produce great work, great recognition, or whether they are in service of some grand purpose or calling. For me, this kind of thinking is a short trip on the procrastination highway to the land of stuck.
At times like this, I find it helpful to indulge in a dose of what Burkeman calls “Cosmic Insignificance Therapy.” And this is where humility really comes into focus. He describes it as “a blunt but unexpectedly liberating truth: that what you do with your life doesn’t matter all that much___ and when it comes to how you’re using your finite time, the universe absolutely could not care less.”
I find this truth, strangely reassuring and yes, liberating. Its just another way of saying, “we can do no great things.”
Reminding myself of this liberates me to stop obsessing about the great things I should or could be doing and focuses me on the little things I actually can do in this moment. It takes my ego out of it. I can simply do what I do. Write these words. Post this article. Record this podcast. And perhaps great things will flow from that, perhaps not.
When I embrace humility, when I truly understand that I’m not that important, that what I do is not that vital in the sweep of history, I can be at peace. It frees me to respond to what is needed of me in this moment.
Empowerment and agency – doing small things.
Now, stay with me while I seem to contradict everything I just said.
Humility is not helplessness. It’s not saying what I do is not worth doing or doesn’t matter (just that it doesn’t matter as much as my ego thinks it does.) In fact, there is tremendous power in acting on small things. Small acts borne of compassion can have a big impact. Small conscious decisions on how to spend my time can add up to a fulfilling life. Small habits that support my wellbeing can create a long and healthy one.
Helplessness goes hand-in-hand with burnout. It’s not simply the volume of work you have to do that exhausts you, it is when it feels futile. Burnout arises from a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness to affect change.
At times like this, it helps to think about the things you can affect. Our opportunity for influence and impact is often much larger than we believe it to be. We often underestimate the degree of choice or influence we have over our circumstances.
And if we cannot find a way to improve our circumstances, we still have choice over the perspective we take on those circumstances. Will I multiply my suffering by dwelling on the things I cannot change? Or will I let them go and turn my attention to the things I can?
Connectedness and gratitude – with great love.
The phrase “with great love” means two things to me. And there is mounting evidence that both these things strongly correlate with wellbeing – connectedness, which includes empathy and compassion, and gratitude.
In the early days of COVID 19 when we were locked down and a vaccine was not yet available, the world seemed unfamiliar and scary. My colleagues and I decided to invite our clients, friends, and associates together via Zoom for 15 minutes every Monday morning for six weeks. We wanted to create a way for them to start their week feeling connected and supported.
We expected to hear that people were stressed and suffering. Many felt anxiety, sadness, and distress. At the same time, I was struck by how often people spoke of a powerful sense of gratitude and appreciation during that difficult time.
Simply gathering together in this intimate space we had created, seemed to be healing and comforting.
Integral to our humanity and our wellbeing is connectedness. The more isolated and disconnected our lives become, the more vulnerable we are to illness and despair.
Human beings evolved to be together and to be in relationship with one another. We evolved to be compassionate to one another. When we are compassionate to others, our own sense of wellbeing improves. We are wired to offer and receive “great love.”
Gratitude and appreciation are also expressions of great love.
People sometimes resist the notion that they would benefit from practicing gratitude. They worry that gratitude makes us complacent. That it denies the real suffering and injustice in the world. That positivity is toxic in the face of suffering.
I find it helpful to think of gratitude practice as something that exists within a larger envelope of appreciation. To appreciate is to be aware. To see things as they are. Appreciation doesn’t ask us to put a positive slant on things. It doesn’t ask us to ignore our suffering or the suffering of others.
Appreciation makes room for all of it – the gifts of life and the reality of suffering. It takes the meta view. It invites us to move through life, heart and eyes open. To meet our experience and the reality of it with gratitude for the journey itself.
As I considered all of this, the words that had resonated so deeply with me became more than a recipe for making a difference. They became an invitation to a way of being in the world. A way to not only make things better for others but in doing so, to make things better for ourselves.
What small thing can you do today? How can you bring great love to bear on it?
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