How Small Actions Can Lead to Large Rewards

"We cannot do great things on this earth. We can only do small things with great love."
- Mother Theresa

I've long had a love/hate relationship with that quote.

On the one hand, I want to be humble enough to believe that small, every day acts done with full heartedness can stitch together the world we want to live in.

On the other hand, what I am most attracted to are broad actions that transform and reform - that bring about sweeping and life-altering changes. Pinel, unchaining the inmates at a French mental asylum and forever shifting the way we approach mental illness. Gandhi, fighting for the rights of the untouchables. Peaceful protesters teaching their bodies to go limp in spite of the sight of trained dogs and fire hoses. A 38 year old man stepping a booted foot on the moon. Penicillin. A novel that spreads like wildfire, affecting the minds of millions of people.

Despite Mother Theresa's wise-sounding words, deep down in my heart I continue to believe that if only I could do one "great thing" on this earth, I would be filled with satisfaction and peace (not that I would scoff at doing several great things - but one seems like a nice place to start).

French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) releasing the mentally ill from their chains at the Salpêtrière asylum in Paris in 1795

Then, this week, I accidentally discovered the undeniable power of doing one small thing...

It happened when I woke up one morning to the sight of fresh laundered bed sheets hanging peacefully on a clothesline.  In front of my bed.

No, my husband and I did not move our mattress into the back yard to take advantage of the romance of starry skies and summer breezes. On most nights around here, that would result in being sucked dry by mosquitoes, drenched by rain, and struck by lighting - in that approximate order.

Instead, the sheets were part of the peacemeal project of the month: the reduction of our family's carbon footprint (the total amount of greenhouse gasses our family emits - or causes to be emitted - by our life style choices).

Amidst a more epic struggle to tame our use of the automobile and air conditioning (which tales of woe and wussiness I'll save for another week), I also decided to banish the clothes dryer from our merry kingdom.

Net-hopping from Michael Bluejay's Electricity Saving Guide to a great blog on lazy clothes-line drying to an advocacy site that promotes the airing of (clean) laundry, I ended up at PayPal approving the purchase of a large indoor-outdoor stand-alone clothesline, aptly named Mrs. Pegg's.

From there, things got a bit more complicated.

The clothesline was successfully set up on our deck and the current load du jour was happily (and lazily) hung while I waited eagerly to enjoy the smell of sunshine and self-congratulatory carbon en-lightenment.

Three days later the sheets were still as wet as the day they came out of my washer.

I knew that, theoretically, all over the earth, people were hanging their clothes on various cords, ropes, hooks, branches, and wires and picking them up some reasonable span of time later, in a non-damp state. Alas, not in my corner of the known world.

It turned out that (just below my full awareness during all these years of air-conditioned oblivion) our days were filled with syrupy, limp-inducing humidity (darn, I better take these sheets inside) occasionally broken by short "teasing" bouts of sunshine (yeah! hang those sheets up quick!) followed by sudden and unexpected periods of drenching rain (oh bother - here we go again).

In case you are wondering, like I did, whether leaving the sheets out overnight would solve the issue, I can attest to the fact that our nights are prone to frequent, hysteria-inducing thunderstorms (the hysteria had been the exclusive realm of our 8 and 3 yr old up until the moment I saw my dripping bedsheets illuminated by repeated flashes of lightning). Finally, to add insult to weather-induced injury, our early mornings produce this annoying (though attractive) thing called dew. All good stuff for growing mushrooms and mosquito larvae but not so much in terms of outdoor clothes drying.

It seemed that Kermit the Frog was right - it wasn't easy being green!

Was it time to throw in my (wet, moldy) towel and limp back to my dryer with my tail between my legs? Or was there something else I could try - something that would help me toe the (clothes) line a bit longer?

That's when I asked my husband how he would feel about having the clothes-line inside our bedroom.

I'll admit he wasn't all that thrilled at first blush.

I wasn't so sure about it myself. After all, I am the one who is always going on about my need for beauty and order. Having spent as much energy and thought as I have in coordinating, de-cluttering, and feng-shuining our inner chamber, would I really be ok with a clothesline full of socks and gym shorts in the middle of it all?

There was only one way to find out.

The morning after the big decision, I woke up to see rows of freshly laundered bed sheets drying side by side in front of my bed.

Photo by author (in author's bedroom)

And I felt my face ...   erupting in a big smile.

My heart was expanding in song. This was beauty! This was order! This was feng shui at its finest!

Since then, that feeling of joy has continued to pop up every time I am greeted by the sight of clothes swaying softly in the breeze made by our ceiling fan. And it's not because I believe that hanging my panties and bras in front of my bed is one of those "great things" that will help save the world (how they may affect the ecology of my marriage is another question).

I believe that I am simply experiencing the power of having made a modest but unyielding step towards living closer to my personal values.

Who knew so much happiness could be derived from a small act done with great integrity?

Well, besides Mother Theresa, that is.

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