Small Choices of Consequence

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Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.

Mother Teresa
T wo parents and their teenage daughter sat together over breakfast in a hotel dining area. Eggs, bacon, toast…they ate quietly, watching television and occasionally commenting to one another. The sun was not yet up and the snowfall from the night before was still being cleared on the drive outside. Finishing their meals, they cleaned up their areas and gathered their things to leave.

As her parents moved toward the door and she began to follow, something caught the young woman’s eye and she turned around, walked to the far side of the table and pushed her father’s chair in so the seat rested properly under the table – fully symmetrical with its five other peers.

Why did she bother to return the chair to its place? Was it an act of courtesy or a compulsive need to have everything in its place? Why does it matter?

From the hotel lobby, the girl and her family walked to their car. What happened next? Did she open a door for her mother? Did she pick up a dropped set of keys from the ground? What other things did that young woman notice and address that no one else did?

Consider your own life. Are you the one who leaves the chair out from the table or the one who makes sure it’s pushed back when you, or someone else, is finished? What does your answer say about you and your view of the world?

Whether we realize it or not, each day, we face a thousand similar situations and make our own choices: to return the chair or not. To hold the door open or walk through oblivious to the person behind us. To say thank you to the server bringing food to the table or dismiss their efforts with indifference. To replace the empty toilet paper roll or leave it for the next person to deal with, or better yet, to even bother flushing the toilet. Small, insignificant moments that have virtually no impact on the wider world yet are infused with opportunity; to do or not to do. Then, we make our choice and move on to the next moment.

Unceremoniously and unnoticed, the young lady took the time to push an empty chair back under a table, so what? Curiously, I noticed and smiled in my noticing. Through that brief window into her world, she made an impression. What did her effort say about her? The moment whispers: this girl is caring and courteous. She is diligent. She is conscientious. Beyond that, it told me that she takes ownership and anticipates something beyond the moment – a time when someone else will walk up to that table or try to pass by a chair in the walkway. Her small act said a lot.

Our lives are built on small moments. Times that seem meaningless and small yet aggregate in unseen ways. The famous “parable of the talents” tells us that those who are faithful in the small things will be given the opportunity to be faithful in bigger things. When we are diligent in the small moments, we set the pattern for how we manage the bigger moments that inevitably come. We are made more effective by our own decisions.

How does pushing a chair in make us better? The act of pushing a chair in by itself is meaningless. However, the decision to take that action is meaningful. Let’s break it down:

  1. NOTICE – First, we have to notice that the chair is not in its proper place. The act of noticing is huge. We walk through our days oblivious to so many things, small and large. When we notice, we tune-in to a need or an opportunity. We bring the power of our focus to a moment and create the opportunity to engage that moment for the better.
  2. DECIDE – Second, we have to decide. Noticing is a gift. Noticing is powerful. However, until you decide to react to what you’ve noticed, it is simply a thought with no outward power. When we decide, we choose intention over indifference. To decide is to make a choice.
  3. ACT – Third, we have to act. As powerful, and uncommon, as it might be to notice and then decide, we must have the will to act. Quite often, we notice things and decide that something should be done but let them pass in the rationalization of inaction or the belief that someone else will do it. To act is to take initiative and exert yourself in a situation. To act affirms the value you place on your decision and reflects your priorities.

At this point, you may be thinking: Come on! We’re just talking about a chair! Though this may seem a reasonable statement, it is the first step in rationalizing a moment away. The small things always portend the big things. When we are “unfaithful” in the small things, we set ourselves up to miss the big things. How we view and respond to the small things informs how we react to everything. Ultimately, the small things become the big things.

Missing the opportunity of the chair doesn’t make you a bad person, it simply suggests that you aren’t dialed-in to the inconsequential and its path to the consequential. Perhaps her father usually pushes his chair in but simply forgot on this occasion; maybe she has grown up watching her mom push her dad’s chair back in. What does your reaction to the chair say about you? Just consider the fact that someone is pushing that chair back in. How many moments in your life depend on someone else taking the initiative for something you should have done?

Today, I challenge you to walk into your life looking for chairs that need pushed-in. Open your eyes to the moments that others are missing and consider what happens when no one picks up the slack, holds the door, or pushes the chair back in. Then decide who you want to be in those moments: the oblivious one or the conscientious one. Tune-in to some of those moments and you will begin to notice many other things as well. Own the small things and the big things will follow.

Post Script

Same chair, different day. A man, alone, takes it for himself. Setting up his laptop, he proceeds to play YouTube videos, volume turned up loudly. The scenes appear to be TV talk show dramas with people set against each other in bizarre social situations and relationship conflicts. He laughs loudly. Another man steps over asking him to turn the volume down. Without acknowledging or looking at the man making the request, the video guy clicks around for about 30 tense seconds before turning the volume down. For 30 more minutes he watches those videos, sometimes playing the volume loudly, as if daring anyone to come over and ask him to turn them down – always turning them down just before the tension in the room spills over. Finally, done laughing out loud, and apparently without further videos to watch, he closes his laptop, gets up, and leaves the room. I watch him leave and, as I turn my eyes back to my own screen, I glance over to see his chair, pushed out from the table. Waiting for someone else to push it in.


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