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It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely

the most important.
-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I used to think that it was a wise exhortation to never sweat the small things. It was unnecessary to be pedantic and exact in every aspect of existence. It was okay to be forgetful of small things and to bypass the trivialities that surround life. I have slowly learned that to think this is a mistake, an exaggerated shortness of perspective that makes life easier in the short term by multiplying difficulties in the long term. To think that you are one who need not concern himself with the minutiae is the mark of satisfaction with mediocrity. It involves the sacrifice of the two most important characteristics that are missed by most people but nonetheless vital in the course of their every day life.

These two attributes are that of awareness and attention to detail. Once you adopt them as a requisite of your every day, each small detail is vital, each bit of planning critical, and every bit of life vital.

Very few, a select minimal few, are really aware of what is going on about them or can see the obvious while it is outside of their immediate cares. It makes life easier, especially in the crowded metropolitan environments in which we now live. We focus on our task to the exclusion of others; we keep our perspective tied to our path, towards the aim which we have set out to achieve. When we are aware, it is usually because some not so benign agency such as the law or social pressure has mandated our watchfulness, for example when driving. Even then the transparent lack of awareness that you see from many drivers is hardly news to anyone.

The reason that awareness is important is that it makes you responsive and reactive to your environment. You have to focus on what is going on around you, and suddenly you start to notice things that you would have skipped without a thought before. Your mind is in the present, which is where it truly belongs. The past is gone, the future yet to come. Your attention must be where you are now, what obligations you have accepted and what little you can do that makes a difference. For example you notice that your routine means going around in circles, that you never leave your wallet and keys in the same place, but always take them together when you leave, that you left something on the floor and that you need to get back and pick it up. Thousands of things like this will litter your everyday experience. This is the narrow unenlightened benefit for you personally: it makes life easier and more efficient at the price of requiring an enhanced level of mental cognition on your part. A willingness to actually live in the present and in the world as you find it. Not as you wish it was, or what it

The unselfish benefit I have picked up is that you become much more alive in a rather fulfilling sense. You listen to people, and notice the hand gestures or the facial quirks. That someone seems to never talk to the person they are addressing but into space, or that some people have odd mannerisms. It tells you a lot about people that you are dealing with, because you are paying close and careful attention to them. Even the people you pass on the street take on significance; you see their dress and their style, their expression and attitude and get a feel of what they are, try and wonder at their experiences and perspectives. Life opens up, and you can sometimes if you really try, a fleeting glimpse passes of the cosmic artist’s work. That is the magic of a mind in the moment. I have called this the unselfish benefit, but perhaps it really is rather a selfish one. I believe though that to find joy in other people, in a nice way not an evil one, is perhaps truly of greater importance in life then I have as yet realised. As my thoughts are still percolating, I will say no more on this point yet. My reader is wise, and I will trust to his or her judgment in such matters.

The second attribute is that of attention. I use attention in the sense of due diligence, and not as a second way of speaking of awareness. If awareness is your mental duty to take note of your world, attention is your obligation to respond. To take stock of what you do and make the necessary changes to ensure that things flow smoothly and efficiently. It may require an alteration of priorities, a movement of furniture or simply writing an email. It prevents last minute panic and rushed jobs; it halts the difficulties for people who find themselves regularly in a rush, by requiring you to think things through in small baby steps until you arrive at your final goal. It can often feel easier to fly by the seat of your pants, to do things as they arise, or as you feel disposed to do them. It is in fact the precise opposite. The more you behave like that the harder life gets, the more your difficulties multiply and the worse things get. Such attention cultivates a healthy sense of perspective, it highlights the impact you can have, and your total ineffectualness at the same time.

These two things combined together state a pretty strong case that one has to worry about details. All life and all tasks are details. You may find it easier to think big picture, but to do so is a patent false economy because someday you will have to finish the job and paint in the small details. You will have to drop something else, perhaps something you wanted to do, to finish off what you left behind today. I can’t stress this enough, everything without exception is details. The difference between the novice and the master are the details, and the difference between those who are masters of the human art of living and the novices of this field is the same. What you think are essentials are also details, but they are just details that are more significant, or that more people have a grasp over. They are not special, not hallowed, by any other precept. They are a detail, like many others in life. For example, your birthday is not exceptional, neither is mine, but to you and to a much lesser extent me, they are important dates.

Let me be clear, these two requirements do not represent the easy way to do things. To be aware of the details of life and to take seriously your corresponding duty of attention is demanding. It requires thinking about everything you do, and doing it all the time. It requires scheduling and planning, it requires picking up the slack, and not dropping any of your own duties. It requires work. It requires effort and endeavour and a lot of it will be pulling the oars so that others might forget that this is a rowboat. It means taking on and bearing a lot of responsibility, and to force yourself to deal with it on an ongoing basis. It’s sometimes a bitter responsibility to take on, and hardly enjoyable. But I do believe that it is a fundamental attribute to the life lived well. It is the first start of a life dedicated towards something more enlightened then pure selfishness, and I doubt that the start of such a path can be bad.


One Comment

    • Dom
    • Posted January 10, 2006 at 8:24 am
    • Permalink

    Well written. Let me tell you that I must be an awared person but I have a disease that kills a lot of the attention in me. That is I know what I ought to do but I don’t do them, and the disease is called laziness. I found that playing less computer games (and in general getting away from the computer) helps with the disease, but I’m still looking for a complete cure. Any ideas? 😉

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