Sometimes the Little Things Mean a Lot

This post is the fifth in an ongoing series. Click here for the index page.

Growing up in a religious environment, you learn the art of reading between the lines. Whether it’s interpreting a passage in a text, the teachings of a community, or the life of a religious leader, you develop an attention to detail that comes up especially when problems are detected on the surface. What helps make these details relevant is that they can be seen as important parts of some bigger, cosmic scheme. However, even believing in this grand plan doesn’t quite mean that what you’re reading between the lines is guaranteed to be real.

In the previous post in this series, I talked about falling into old habits from my religious days, of looking for signs around every corner. When desperation strikes, this kind of thing seems to be pretty normal for many people. It’s an act of searching for something to hold on to, after all. I think this is what some folks mean when they talk about the value of the little things. There’s the idea that the little things are meaningful because they are signs that point to something greater, and that something is there to give them their importance.

On the other hand, I think there are plenty of times when we find value in the little things just because of what they mean to us personally. There is a strong notion of intimacy involved, and subtracting this from the picture does seem like it would undermine that meaningfulness. Many of us fondly remember the mannerisms and preferences of our departed loved ones, and we may even commemorate these things in some fashion or other. Yet we also understand that these little things are meaningful because of their familiarity, and they are so meaningful without serving a purpose in some incredible cosmic scheme.

At some point in my early 20s, I started dealing with bouts of anxiety and depression by taking time out to walk through the park. I’d grab my headphones, put on music, and just go at whatever pace I felt like going. I wasn’t really doing it to exercise, to feel more active, or to see anything in particular. It was a stress-relief tool more than anything else.

Years later, during and after Danielle had been hospitalized, walking the park became one of those little things to help me make it through the day. It got me out of the house when I felt sad and alone. It gave me something to do when I often felt helpless. The trees and creeks and sky and weather reminded me of how beautiful and serene things could still be. And the animals I came across reminded me that life was still out there, too. Life that might be indifferent to my concerns and struggles, but that didn’t feel the need to say shit. It could just be there around you, and do a better job of making its presence known in that way than many humans can.

Other times it gave me peace of mind to simply sit by the pond near my apartment, watching the ducks. Or pick up my guitar and just start playing. Those first few weeks when she suffered the brain injury felt like such a blur, like such chaos, that it almost seemed like slowing down was an impossible feat. Not only impossible, but wrong, too. She was sitting in the hospital, or in recovery, during some of those times I was doing other things. Why wasn’t I there? Why didn’t I just camp out and never leave?

In retrospect, I kind of understand why. I was losing sleep. I was working and barely taking time off. That first night when I made the 911 call had overwhelmed and terrified me. People had explained to me that there was no timetable we were working with for when Danielle might recover. In the last post, I spoke about how at the worst time, everything felt black to me. Another way of putting it might be that it was like sinking deep into a black tarry pit, all the while my mind and heart were telling me I had to do everything I could to try and climb out. “She needs you.”

I’m quite aware that nearly every single one of these posts so far has included some attempt at assuaging the guilt I’ve felt over this. It always feels like there’s more you could do when someone you love is going through a traumatic event. The things you have done feel so insignificant, regardless of how appreciated they are.

There is a temptation you feel to sacrifice the little things, too. Sometimes this is the right response, but it can be taken too far. I think there’s a good likelihood that it usually is taken too far when someone’s in the midst of confronting trauma. When everything else feels insignificant, sacrificing yourself can sound like the best option, the only one with significance. It might look ridiculous and unnecessary to others, but you’ve already wished you could’ve taken her place, and imagined how you would trade their suffering for yours.

As much as I might have wanted to believe I could do it all, I couldn’t. None of us can. The little things are frequently a big part of what helps keep us going. And this isn’t just true for those of us caring for a loved one, it’s very often true of our loved ones, too. Looking for the big gestures can be the wrong way to go about it.

Once I understood this, it did change things. I had the idea to get my partner something for the times I couldn’t be with her while she was in the hospital. Something little. Something she could hold. Something that would remind her of me, but not make her sad. And what I got wound up being more perfect than I could have expected. Her family and the hospital staff told me on a few occasions that it never seemed to leave her side.

For most of my life, I’ve been a big music person. It’s always fascinated me how moving and inspiring some music can be. There are songs that speak to you, but then there are also those rare pieces that just unravel you. The ones that tap into something deep and personal at the right moment.

I don’t even remember exactly how it happened that I first put on one particular song a few days before Danielle was to go into recovery. I often rotate albums on my iPhone so that I have different stuff to listen to while I’m at work. I’d been a fan of the British progressive metal band Threshold for some time prior, and even listened to this album once or twice before. But as the rain started to come down on my drive to the hospital and the singer began to sing their song “Lost in Your Memory,” it just hit me like a tank.

Do you wander through the darkness
Unaware of what you’ll find
Still you know to keep on going anyway
In the strength of all the roots that grow with time

Do you suffer through the sunlight
Longing for a drop of rain
Still you know to keep on going anyway
In the knowledge that your time will come again
Before your journey’s end

It had been difficult to find hope as the hours turned to days and the days turned to weeks. Danielle continued to have trouble with her speech even after the doctors had gotten the seizing under control. Nobody really seemed to know why, either. You begin to question what you’re holding on for. All you want, more than anything, is for an end, to be able to move on and leave the worst behind.

Threshold’s song is a beautiful reminder to stay focused in times of pain and hardship. “Hold on, keep yourself together,” the chorus says. “There are better sights to see / Hold on, this will all become a faded photograph, lost in your memory.” Here was an encouragement to keep fighting, but not one delivered with the usual promise of a greater plan, a god watching over us all, or a heaven beyond this life. What stood out so much to me was the incredible honesty and realism of the lyrics.

We know that memory changes over time. In some cases, this can be a loss we mourn. Yet in others, this change is what allows us to move forward. We are not trapped with reliving the worst parts of our lives repeatedly. The way that we remember those events even three years on will be different from how we remembered them a month after they occurred. There is something comforting in knowing that if we can hold on for a while longer, the awful things we’re enduring at the moment will be gone, and like a photograph fades with time, they will start to fade from our memory as new experiences create new and better memories for us.

Of course, my intent is not to suggest that a simple reminder like this is enough to deal with trauma. I don’t think that was all it took for me, either, but it still made a difference. The song gave me something I don’t believe I was getting elsewhere, and that was part of the amazing thing about it. A little thing like a 4 and a half minute long song can mean a whole lot more than we sometimes think.

Almost a full year later, I decided I would send an email to the guys at Threshold, thanking them for their work and saying what it meant to me. To my surprise, I got a reply the next day from the keyboardist, who had written “Lost in Your Memory”:

Thank you for your email. Your story really touched me and I’m so glad your partner has recovered so well. I wrote the song while I was going through some hard circumstances too, so the words were from the heart and it’s humbling and uplifting to know they’ve touched the lives of others. I’m so grateful to you for sharing and I wish you both every happiness together.

Perhaps the little things can mean a lot to us because most of us share in them to one extent or another. Music is social in nature. A walk through the park can be a social exercise in its own right. Behind even very intimate one-to-one acts of affection, there are broader contexts, cultural histories, social backgrounds, and so forth. The little things may not be so little even if they aren’t meaningful on a grand, cosmic scale. They make us feel less alone while at the same time remaining faithful to the fragility of many of our most cherished life experiences.

Don’t forget the small things. What would the bigger things be without them?

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