The Power of Little Things

“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” — J.R.R. Tolkein

Before you do anything — before you read further — take four slow, deep breaths. Just do it. It will make sense later.

When times are hard, when things are dark, when the entire world is about to fall on you and smash you flat, you don’t want to freakin’ pay attention to your breath. What a joke! It’s too small. You need at least a tank with an ICBM missile. You need a .357 Magnum and some titanium plating on your front door.

At least that’s what it feels like.

I need a bigger weapon!

I know this guy. His name is not John. He’s homeless and sleeps in doorways. John never carries ID because he’s got warrants out for his arrest, most of which are related to the fact that he’s an alcoholic. He has a college degree. He got into and then dropped out of law school. He attended some classes I gave at the homeless shelter. John attended the first class because he’d been sleeping curled up on the cement floor and my talking woke him up.

At one point a couple of weeks later in the class, I suggested that everyone write down three things they were grateful for, and then we’d talk about them.

John sneered at me. “This is like the gratitude circles at the city shelter. It’s stupid.” He got up and walked out.

John’s problems were too big for keeping a gratitude journal. Or even just to write down three things he was grateful for. That’s too small. He had big problems, he needed gigantic solutions, not tiny little ones.

Gratitude Journal

The truth is, writing down three things every day that you are grateful for can have a very outsized effect. It’s easy and natural to focus on your problems. It’s the stuff that needs to be dealt with and attended to, you can’t let it slide. Stress begins to pile on top of stress until all we can see are the mountains of paperwork, the bills, the expensive repairs on the house or car, too much overtime at work, and on and on. It doesn’t look like writing down three things you are grateful for first thing in the morning or last thing at night is going to be any help at all. But it is, it does, it lightens the burdens.

John has lots of things to be grateful for. He’s in good health, in fact, he’s quite fit because of all the walking he does. He has friends and resources like the homeless shelter that takes care of his most basic needs. He’s intelligent and well-educated. Paying attention to the things he could be grateful for would lighten his burden a bit. It would punch holes in the great black wall of problems that surround him. Gratitude is such a little thing but it lets the light in.

And a regular journal

I once had a dream — I don’t remember much of it except that I was telling someone “No matter what happens, I’ll always be okay because I’m a writer.”

And you know, I utterly believe that’s true even though I’m completely aware that it doesn’t make a bit of sense.

I keep a journal. A journal isn’t a diary. A diary is where you just list what you did today. “Went to work, got off at the usual time, dropped by the grocery store on the way home, made chili for dinner, watched CSI, and went to bed.” There’s nothing wrong with diaries. In fact, they can be wonderful. You have no idea what’s going to look strange, quaint, or exotic to your decedents 70 years from now. “Oh, yeah, back in those days people drove to work. What the heck is chili? I’ll have to look it up.”

Journal as friend

A journal is where you share your thoughts and feelings. You can vent about what happened at work. Worry about how much longer your car will last and go into some detail about why, after 5,783 episodes, CSI seems to be losing its edge.

It doesn’t seem like a big deal, I mean, you’re discussing what you had for dinner and analyzing a tv show. But you are relieving stress, focusing your mind, and exploring your spiritual journey.

You probably have a sense that you are writing boring stuff for posterity. A journal isn’t that. It’s just a confidante that won’t whisper behind your back. It’s true that writing a list of things you are grateful for is one of those twinkie ideas that you get in new age workshops. Yes, but it works way better than crystal healing or chakra alignment.

A journal can receive your gratitude list but it’s also a way to get to know yourself and really find out what you think about stuff. You can brainstorm solutions to problems and you can find out if you’re lying to yourself because the truth will pop out on the page in front of you. Five minutes of writing stuff down is a little thing but can have a huge effect on your life.

Some little things

If it’s daytime go out and stand in the sunshine for five minutes. I don’t mean take a walk. Just stand there and let the sun bake you for a few minutes. If it’s night, turn on all the lights in your house. Don’t worry about the electricity, the world can save itself without you. Maybe light some candles also. Whatever you’re wearing, change out of it and put on something else. Stop binge-watching “Murder She Wrote” and put on some music. Or stop listening to country music breakup songs and turn on “Murder She Wrote.” Little things.

If you are frightened, anxious, worried, embarrassed, or angry, those four breaths I had you do a little while ago, can help. Four mindful breaths. In Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong, no matter how ill or how hopeless you may feel.” Mindfulness meditation is another small thing that seems too tiny to be worth anything.


I mean, all you do is sit there quietly and train your mind to refocus again and again on a meditation object, usually your breath. What on earth will that do for you? First of all, they recommend 20 minutes a day and it takes weeks to see any definite benefit. Your problems need to be fixed today. And who the heck has twenty minutes in their day to devote to sitting there doing nothing?

A moment is the smallest unit of time anybody can pronounce. Our lives are nothing but a collection of billions of moments. Your entire life can change from one moment to the next. You can be driving down the road, a little late for work and then the next instant you and your car can be broken on the side of the road. Some moments are controlled by physics and chance, but most of them are up to you. Most of them are your choice, even when you don’t seem to be choosing.

When you sit down to meditate, the first time you take a mindful breath, something has changed. It might not be a tsunami. It might not be an eclipse of the sun, but something is different.

The power of small things is a major theme in Lord of the Rings, but nobody notices it. That theme certainly didn’t show up in the movies. It’s like Peter Jackson couldn’t figure out why the Hobbits were in the story. Nobody notices that the massive armies of men and elves are assembled just to distract Sauron so a three-foot, four-inch Hobbit can toss a ring into a volcano. Nobody notices that cities burn, and monsters roam the earth all because of something a half-inch across. All the power in the universe can fit in the palm of your hand and when it’s destroyed, Mordor falls and the most evil thing on the planet turns into vapor and blows away on the breeze.

And small kindnesses

Before I started this essay I did some Googling to find out what other people said. I found a lot of sermons, homilies, and advice columns about doing small nice things for people. A smile, an encouraging word, a small kindness, those little things are also powerful. But we kind of know all that.

Once I was in a grocery store and I was at a pretty low point in my life. I couldn’t reach something on a high shelf and was standing there trying to figure out how to make myself two inches taller. A man came up behind me, took the thing off the shelf and handed it to me without a word or even a smile, as if it were the most ordinary thing on earth, which it was. Then he just walked away. The incident was so brief I can barely remember what he looked like. But I was blown away by such automatic, casual kindness. I still think about it sometimes. It became a pebble that started a landslide months later. It became a turning point, a moment when everything changed.

And it was no big deal. There was no mighty wizard with a glowing sword, no spooky elf magic, it was just some dude.

The powerful things

I’ve heard people say. “I was in counseling for a while but all they did was ask questions.” Yes, they’re just simple questions, but with the right questions, magic happens.

I’ve had people tell me “I did meditation for a while and didn’t get much out of it. I need more.” It’s true that meditation doesn’t seem like much, it’s just sitting there staring into space.

“I tried to keep a journal a dozen times but I just can’t seem to keep at it.” Yeah, it probably wasn’t the Diary of Anne Frank, but it was a daily phone call to yourself.

And those four breaths….those four slow, deep breaths. They don’t seem like much when you are battling outer or inner monsters. They aren’t much. They are small and ordinary like Sam Gamgee, and they are as powerful.


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Susan Cogan wears a lot of different hats and is the author of more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles and blog posts. She is also a CTI-trained life coach, Buddhist, artist, wife, and body servant to three cats.




I write self-help, life coaching, and politicaI opinion. I am a creativity and mindfulness coach

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Susan Brassfield Cogan

Susan Brassfield Cogan

I write self-help, life coaching, and politicaI opinion. I am a creativity and mindfulness coach

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