Doing the Small Things Right

There are some people who need to spend some time behind bars to gain a bit of wisdom, or, as Steve Miller put it so succinctly as he flew cross-country on a 707, “sometimes you have to go through hell before you get to heaven.”

Kids, in particular, may need to stop whatever they’re doing before they can consider doing something else. Teen-agers and those who continue to be teen-agers long into adulthood are prone to be carried away, and the carrying all to often deposits them behind the walls of a prison.

Now, most jails are not populated by the death dealing psychopaths of television’s OZ; stabbings, even fights, are rare, and rape is even rarer. Jails are generally places where lost kids and drunks and drug addicts gather because society has no other place to put them and they persistently lack the organizational ability to structuralize a productive life; no mean feat these days – I know from hard experience. Kids then gather in jails, usually among friends, and do the things they would be doing if they were “on the street”; they play cards, watch television, and gossip. Every once in a while they hatch a hare-brained scheme like trying to sneak cigarettes onto the wing or short-sheeting a particularly vulnerable cell-mate. Sometimes the cell-mate decides he doesn’t like being designated the vulnerable one (”They mistook my kindness for weakness,” he says afterwards), and a fight ensues. Officers rush in, everyone goes to segregation for a week, and the drama rolls on. Kids will be kids.

Sometimes caring people are nonplussed that so many kids are expending their precious youths bouncing in and out of institutions like these; after all, most of them find themselves in their situation because they grew up poor and uncared for, or they have some cognitive disability that put them behind in the human race from the start. And that’s where the age old struggle again ensues; we’ve got to find a way to insert the wisdom of age into the mind of a child.

Socrates thought that the best way to reach young minds was to gather in green glades and “dialogue.” But then, his society countenanced sexual exploitation of the young and slavery, so something better had to be found. Rousseau thought that man was perfect as created and just had to be placed in a perfectly natural environment for his perfection to emerge; however, feral children know how to catch rabbits but are distinctly lacking in social sensitivity. Hume thought that people were a tabula rasa, or blank slate (not the Middle Eastern grain dish, that’s tabbouleh), just waiting to be written into mature form. But all of these approaches had one effect on teen-agers – they put them to sleep.

In the effort to make two thousand years of hard won wisdom palatable to the young it is boiled down in the jailhouse steamer to a series of aphorisms, each of which is capable of being discussed for decades or until your release date, whichever comes first. In the modern boot camp program the young novice will question why he has to make his bed just so, address others as “sir”, maintain impeccable hygiene, and organize the contents of his box according to a formula that could challenge a nuclear physicist, just as kids outside will wonder why they have to learn geometry or English grammar or European history. Why do I have to know when the War of 1812 happened? What good is that going to do me?

It is then, and only then, that the wizened veteran will toss out the well worn aphorism that seeks, in one or two phrases, to communicate how you should live your life: “Do the small things right,” he says, glancing out the window because he doesn’t want his message to be mitigated by power struggle motivated by a direct gaze, “and the big things will take care of themselves.”

If the saying has been deposited at just the right time, then the mildly startled recipient is momentarily struck dumb; “Do the small things” he is heard whispering to himself, again and again. Yes, he slowly realizes, this is rock hard wisdom, as neat a nugget as you are likely to find in a lifetime; “Do the small things right.

There are elements of the realization that are odious, even burdensome, for now you have to attend to the small things, life becomes a moment to moment process of decision making in which the events that you ignore will come back to haunt you. Great wealth is comprised of making one dollar a million times over and a great work of literary art is constructed of word upon words. A healthy child is nurtured in a hundred thousand thoughtful, kindly moments, a roof is shingled with hundreds of accurate whacks of a hammer And if you stay sober for one day you will eventually find that you have been sober for a lifetime.

Suddenly you find yourself walking with care, talking with care, even looking at others with care. Small things done right are piling up and becoming big things, and you look at the big things with admiration and you are admired for them.

But then you begin to take the small things for granted, or you let someone else do the small things because you have become too important to do them, or you become so involved in the big things that the small things zip by before you can even notice them. And soon the big things become hollow and treacherous and they collapse and you find yourself back again, back again in the tightly restricted land of those who have forgotten the small things.

The main thing about small things, you find, is that they are small, and therefore easy to ignore or overlook. To become grand – and all of us harbor a desire to be grand – is lose oneself and the many small details of which one is comprised. And the kids, like all of us, need to learn to pay attention, or pay again and again for the blindness to small things.