Chapter 75

  1. Trifles

It is to the contempt of details that many men may trace the cause of their present misfortune. The world is full of those who languish, not from a lack of talents, but because, in spite of their many brilliant parts, they lack the power of properly estimating the value of trifles. Their souls fire with lofty conceptions of some work to be achieved, their minds warm with enthusiasm as they contemplate the objects already attained; but when they begin to put the scheme into execution they turn away in disgust from the dry minutiæ and vulgar drudgery which are requisite for its accomplishment. Such men bewail their fate. Failing to do the small tasks of life, they have no calls to higher ones, and so complain of neglect.

As the universe itself is composed of minute atoms, so it is little details, mere trifles, which go to make success in any calling. Attention to details is an element of effectiveness which no reach of plan, no loftiness of design, no enthusiasm of purpose can dispense with. It is this which makes the difference between the practical man, who pushes his thoughts to a useful result, and the mere dreamer. If we would do much good in the world we must be willing to do good in little things, in little acts of benevolence one after another; speaking a timely and good word here, doing an act of kindness there, and setting a good example always. We must do the first good thing we can, and then the next. This is the only way to accomplish much in one’s lifetime. He who waits to do a great deal of good at once will never do any thing.

The disposition of mankind is to despise the little incidents of every-day life. This is a lamentable mistake, since nothing in this life is really small. In the complicated and marvelous machinery of circumstances it is absolutely impossible to decide what would have happened as to some event if the smallest deviation had taken place in the march of those that preceded them. In a factory we may observe the revolving wheel in one room and in another, many yards distant, the silk issuing from the loom, rivaling in its tints the colors of the rainbow. There are many events in our lives, the distance between which was much greater than that between the wheel and ribbon, yet the connection was much closer. It is, indeed, strange on what petty trifles the crises of life are decided. A chance meeting with some friend, an unexpected delay in some business venture, may be the source from which you date the rise of good or ill fortune.

There are properly no trifles in the biography of life. The little things in youth accumulate into character in age and destiny in eternity. Little sums make up the grand total of life. Each day is brightened or clouded by trifles. Great things come but seldom, and are often unrecognized until they are passed. It has been said that if a man conceives the idea of becoming eminent in learning, and can not toil through the many little drudgeries necessary to carry him on, his learning will soon be told. Or if one undertakes to become rich, but despises the small and gradual advances by which wealth is ordinarily acquired, his expectations will be the sum of his riches.

The difference between first and second class work in every department of labor lies chiefly in the degree of care with which the minutiæ are executed. No matter whether born king or peasant, our inevitable accompaniment through life is a succession of small duties, which must be met and overcome, or else they will defeat our plans. When we reflect that no matter what profession or business we may follow, it demands the closest attention to a mass of little and apparently insignificant details, then we comprehend why it is that the patient plodder, the slow but sure man, so universally surpasses the genius who had such a brilliant career in college. It is all very well to form vast schemes. It is, however, the homely details of their execution that furnish the crucial tests of character. The successful business man at home, surrounded by articles of luxury, is a spectacle calculated to spur on the toiler. But the merchant at his office has had to work with trifles, to toil over columns of figures to post his ledger; and while you were carelessly spending a dollar, he has ransacked his books to discover what has become of a stray shilling.

In short, success in any pursuit can not be obtained unless the trifling details of the business are attended to. No one need hope to rise above his present situation who suffers small things to pass unimproved, or who, metaphorically speaking, neglects to pick up a cent because it is not a shilling. All successful men have been remarkable, not only for general scope and vigor, but for their attention to minute details. Like the steam hammer, they can forge ponderous bolts or fashion a pin. It is singular that in view of these facts men will neglect details. Many even consider them beneath their notice, and when they hear of the success of a business man who is, perhaps, more “solid” than brilliant, sneeringly remark that he is “great in little things.” But with character, fortune, and the concerns of life, it is the littles combined that form the great whole. If we look well to the disposition of these, the sum total will be cared for. It is the pennies neglected that squander the dollars. It is the minutes wasted that wound the hours, and mar the day.

Much of the unhappiness of life is caused by trifles. It is not the great bowlders, but the small pebbles on the road, that bring the traveling horse on his knees; and it is the petty annoyances of life, to be met and conquered afresh each day, that try most severely the metal of which we are made. Small miseries, like small debts, hit us in so many places and meet us at so many turns and corners, that what they lack in weight they make up in number, and render it less hazardous to stand the fire of one cannon ball than a volley composed of such a shower of bullets. The great sorrows of life are mercifully few, but the innumerable petty ones of every day occurrence cause many to grow weary of the burden of life.

Those acts which go to form a person’s influence are little things, but they are potential for good or evil in the lives of others. From the little rivulets we trace the onward flowing of majestic rivers, constantly widening until lost in the ocean; and so the little things of an individual life, in their ever-widening influence for good or evil, diffusing misery or happiness around them, are borne onward to swell the joys or sorrows of the boundless ocean of eternity, and should be noted and guarded the more carefully from their infinitely higher importance. Words may seem to us but little things, but they possess a power beyond calculation. They swiftly fly from us to others, and though we scarcely give them a passing thought, their spirit lives. Though they are as fleeting as the breath that gave them, their influence is as enduring as the heart they reach. Ah, well may we guard our lips so that none grieve in silence over words we have carelessly dropped. Well may we strive to scatter loving, cheering, encouraging words, to soothe the weary, and awaken the nobler, finer feelings of those with whom we daily come in contact.

The happiness, also, of life is largely composed of trifles. The occasions of great joys, like those of great sorrows, are few and far between, but every day brings us much of good if we will but gather it. “One principal reason,” says Jeremy Bentham, “why our existence has so much less of happiness crowded into it than is accessible to us, is that we neglect to gather up those minute particles of pleasure which every moment offers for our acceptance. In striving after a sum total, we forget the ciphers of which it is composed; struggling against inevitable results which he can not control, too often man is heedless of those accessible pleasures whose amount is by no means inconsiderable, when collected together; stretching out his hands to catch the stars, man forgets the flowers at his feet, so beautiful, so fragrant, so multitudinous, so, various.”

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