The poet Auden once wrote of the ‘long littleness’ of life. This remarkable expression draws attention to the extent to which we spend our time in what we might think are inconsequential things. Sometimes we come to the end of a day (or even a week) and think that perhaps we have achieved nothing, or that nothing much happened.
In another important sense, though, life is made up of these little things, the seemingly unimportant—the things we do every day. We get a meal ready, we make the bed or do some cleaning, and we greet a friend or neighbour, and we walk to the shop or catch the train, or drive to work, and at work we do lots of things that make up our work, and the list could go on with far too many ‘ands’ to make a proper sentence! When T S Eliot’s Prufrock says, ‘I have measure out my life with coffee spoons’, I think he is acknowledging a deliberate sense in which life is made up these little things—and perhaps the risk that they will simply capture us, so that we fail to achieve our hopes and dreams.
In this reflection, I want to name a whole lot of ‘little things’ that have happened or been part of my last week: all too busy, and so easily drawing me away from what I might think is central to my concerns. I do have some very big things on my agenda, not least preparing for the end of the year when I will walk away from my job as Principal of Whitley College. I have lots to work through. But while all that bubbles away in the background (or underground!) so many other good things happen almost without notice. Here I make a list, in order simply to acknowledge these ‘little things’ and to say ‘Thanks’.
- I remember a song popular in my youth, ‘If I can love somebody, as I go along, … If I can help somebody … Then my living shall not be in vain.’
- Some us, spontaneously, joined around a piano to have a sing. What fun. Music is so important to the everyday.
- Food shared in the family, and with friends, is nourishing, but so too is the time together.
- Sunny days do make you feel good.
- Fabulous surf at the weekend. Such fun.
- Facebook is really very boring, so much of the time. But it is helpful for promoting some causes and finding friends from school days.
- I wish I had time to follow those people up.
- A guy I met on the bus last year, and saw again this week, remembers how my class helped him a lot, years ago.
- I can listen to research students and help them find the structure that they have already developed but couldn’t quite see for themselves, and this gives them a new lease of life.
- Health is such a gift, and so precarious.
- Friends are struggling in lots of ways, health, career, relationships, and we can help each other out by just being there for one another.
- I really enjoyed preparing a lecture for this coming weekend.
- I really really enjoyed preparing a sermon I will deliver in Washington next month.
- There are lots more things I could do in ‘retirement’—I just have to keep looking.
- It is so easy to be just too busy: almost everyone is.
So what does all this say by means of a Lenten reflection?
I think, first of all, it urges me to see the long littleness and to be grateful for the sheer living, for the partnerships, companionship and support that makes up ‘life’.
Also, there is a challenge to see this busyness and ask whether it should trouble me. Maybe the trouble is in trying to impose some other ‘order’ or ‘priority’ over it. Maybe I just need to be in the present, do what is to hand, and trust there is meaning in that.
And then, too, I am thinking that some of these things are clear indicators for the future: there are many things that bring me joy. I do not want to let them go. Other things, almost all of them to do with ‘institutions’ and institutional roles, are something else again.
Enough of the ‘long littleness’ of life. On with the living!