Ted Ryan, a friend of mine, told me about an experience that goes under the category of “the things a child can imagine.” He was giving his four year-old son breakfast before he went off to work, but the boy was just sitting there. He wasn’t touching his cereal.
So Ted says to his son, “Eat your cereal, and you’ll grow up big and strong like Daddy.”
The Boy perks up. “What else will make me grow up big and strong like you?”
“Well . . .” Ted paused for a moment. “Uh—running to your sandbox, you know—that’s good for you too. That’ll make you grow up big and strong.”
The boy started eating his cereal with relish. His finished the bowl, then bolted out the door and ran for his sandbox. But half-way there he stops—in tears—and says, “Daddy, I’m half-way there and I’m not bigger and stronger.”
It was one of those dumbfounding moments for a father, recognizing just in what far world this child lived. He imagined that growth could happen immediately. That a boy could morph from scrawny to brawny in ten seconds, like The Incredible Hulk.
Four year-old boys aren’t the only ones who entertain such fantasies. Growth happens slowly. It takes time, seasons. It takes patience and faithfulness. Most of all, it takes trust—a willingness to do small, apparently insignificant things every day, things that appear to make no difference in this moment, little acts that seem inconsequential. What difference does it make if I skip my walk this morning? What difference does this one double-cheeseburger make? So what if I skip my quiet devotional moment—it’s just a few minutes, anyway.
It’s so hard to believe that the little things we do, day in and day out, are adding up. That’s why quick fixes, diet pills, get-rich-quick schemes are so alluring. It’s why those instant make-over shows are so amazing: it all happens overnight. They bring you in and tell you to open your eyes. Like a dream. It’s all new and beautiful and you didn’t have to turn a hand.
Growing a soul is the work of a lifetime, but it happens one day at a time (just like they say in the Twelve-Step programs). The good you do today is critically important even if you can’t see it right now. The little decisions you make, the small promises you keep. They all add up. It starts with a spiritual practice, a commitment to do certain things every day. If you don’t have a spiritual practice—what we used to call a “rule of life”—begin there. A pastor or spiritual director can help you get started.
Pete Seeger, the great folksinger, uses the image of a seesaw to talk about how change comes gradually. At one end, the seesaw is held down by a basket of rocks. At the other end are good people working for change, armed only with teaspoons to fill a basket with sand and tip the balance for the good. People scoff at the effort, saying teaspoons of sand are no match against rocks. But one day the tipping point comes, the basket of rocks is catapulted and scattered, and people ask, “How did that happen so quickly?” Well, Seeger replies, “it’s us and our damned teaspoons.”