We live in a society where bigger is decidedly better. Yet, every day the world actually turns on the small and seemingly insignificant acts of ordinary people. There is a significance to the insignificant. Understanding the power of what the world would deem "insignificant actions" while also comprehending the insignificance of our place in the world fosters humility while creating the kind of clarity that focuses our daily activities in a way that can make a difference.
As a young missionary in Japan in 1985, I was transformed on what I thought was an insignificant day of little consequence to the work I had been assigned to do. Late in the afternoon, my companion and I knelt on a rice mat across from a 94-year-old man named Yamaguchi. Mr. Yamaguchi had invited us into his tiny home and was pleased he had found someone who would listen to his stories and philosophies about success and achievement. We were equally pleased we had found a place out of the heat and humidity. I was personally enjoying the chance to engage for a moment in a conversation about my passion for understanding human development and achievement.
We talked for a very long time. Mostly, Mr. Yamaguchi talked, and I listened intently as he shared his wisdom on success, failure, great leaders, peak performers, happiness, peace of mind and balance. Finally, it was time for us to leave. As we stood to go, Mr. Yamaguchi stopped me and said, "Boyd, all of the things we have talked about today are true. If you implement these principles, skills and strategies into your life, you can be successful and happy and have peace of mind and balance and an ability to accomplish your goals."
Mr. Yamaguchi paused and lowered his voice, "Yet, there is still one more principle that you must understand if you are to achieve greatness." He leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Remember, elephants don't bite, but fleas do!" With that Mr. Yamaguchi bowed and our meeting was over. A tiny, maybe even trivial proverb was filled with significance for me.
It is true that the big things in life tend to take care of themselves, but often it is what we do with the little things that either holds us back or propels us forward to the accomplishment of a goal or objective. During challenging times, doing the little things well is even more important.
The Olympics are a classic example of elephants and fleas. In the Games, it always comes down to a fraction of a point, a hundredth of a second. The width of a bike tire or the length of a skate makes the difference between being the gold medal champion and someone who just participated. The same is true in our personal and professional lives. It is the little things that matter — the personal touches, the little extra effort, the small courtesies shown, the minute details polished. These little things can create enormous results.
The small and simple do a make a difference in the pursuit of excellence, yet such actions are even more important if we desire to transcend worldly success on the road to realizing true significance.
At the funeral for former President George H.W. Bush, the Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson Jr. told of a humble act of service performed by Bush's friend and former secretary of state, James Baker. Levenson said, "Secretary Baker was at the foot of the president's bed and toward the end, Jim Baker rubbed and stroked the president's feet — for perhaps half an hour."
Camera's inside the National Cathedral panned to Baker, who had humbly bowed his head and began to sob.
Levenson continued, "The president smiled at the comfort of his dear friend. Here I witnessed a world leader who was serving a servant who had been our world's leader." Small and insignificant? No! It may have been the greatest and most timely lesson in leadership Washington has witnessed in a very long time.
I remember a similar scene when my grandfather, Warren Pugh, lay ill in the hospital before he passed away. My mother, Carol, hates feet and everything about them. Probably from having 11 children and the smelly pile of shoes by our back door or the mountains of socks that perpetually had to be washed or from children needing to be bathed after summer days outside. I remember her rubbing Grandpa's feet for long stretches in a comforting and reassuring way. Her actions became a symbol to me of a daughter's love and mother's example of providing the service that was needed no matter how great or small.
Finally, the Christian world will soon celebrate the coming of a single child — a humble birth in a simple place. Heralded to unpretentious shepherds, raised in the unremarkable home of a carpenter, followed by unassuming disciples. He taught the poor, blessed the meek, offered himself as a sacrifice for sin and gave hope to the faithful. He too, in one of his final seemingly insignificant acts on earth, humbly washed the feet of his disciples. Hardly the big stuff of myth and legend and certainly not notable in the chronicles of history. Yet, his life has had a more significant impact on the people of the world down through the ages than any who has ever walked earth. All because Jesus Christ had the humility to recognize the significance of the insignificant. The widow's mite, the prodigal son, the lost lamb, the woman caught in sin, the leper, the lame, the blind, the sorrowing, the suffering — all were significant to Jesus.
I recently stood on the bow of a ship before dawn while traveling between French Polynesian islands. As the moon and stars faded, the sun emerged on the horizon. The brilliant morning sun reflected on the rolling sea, and I discovered that I was surrounded by never-ending water in every direction. I have never felt smaller and more insignificant. And yet, in that moment I somehow felt significant. The words from the Psalmist came to mind, "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor."
When we recognize the significance of our insignificance, we will see that while small in scale to the vastness of the world and the glory of God's creations, he has made all of us, just a little lower than the angels, filled with immense, even unlimited, potential for significance. That recognition will guide us to be more mindful of the little things in our lives and the minute moments where even the tiniest act on our part may make all the difference for someone else.