Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes. –Charles Duhigg
Since returning to the gym in May, I’ve slowly been making small progress on the treadmill. I’ve boosted my speed by half a mile per hour and started to incorporate inclines throughout my forty-five-minute walk.
For some of you, that’d be a piece of cake. Not so much for me.
I walk with a limp, and I’m a big guy, so this isn’t easy for me. I realized I needed someone to celebrate my small wins with me, so I found a couple of fitness accountability partners. Knowing they care enough to keep me accountable as I seek to achieve my goals spurs me on.
But it’s deeper than mere inspiration or motivation. It’s about making a connection.
Life is difficult. You don’t need me to tell you that. But it’s even more difficult when no one notices your small wins.
When a long-distance runner crosses the finish line quicker than his or her best time, I’m sure it’s exhilarating, but it’d be even better if someone were there with a watch in hand and fist raised in celebration.
Sure, the small win – no matter what we’re talking about – is satisfying. But celebrating with someone who knows its significance is even better. It strengthens bonds, which in turn makes us feel more human.
Maybe that’s why so many people post their workouts on social media, hoping for a little love. Instead, they are often met with indifference, or worse, criticism.
It’s impossible to be involved in a lot of people’s lives at once – certainly to the point of being able to celebrate small wins with everyone. But finding two or three such people can make a world of difference.
It’s been one of those weeks.
Last Friday at midnight, a windstorm hit Omaha (my hometown) and knocked out power to 190,000 residents. Wind gusts were recorded as high as 95 mph. My neighbor’s tree succumbed to the wind, falling across the power and phone lines, and I didn’t have power for days. You can see the aftermath in the photos above.
You find out how soft you are in situations like that.
You also find out how many great people you have around you. One friend allowed me to store some of my medicine in his refrigerator. He also provided two rechargeable lamps, a rechargeable radio and two battery packs. Another friend came over and picked up some of my food so he could store it in his freezer. Another friend allowed me to store more food in his freezer. A family member came through with a generator. And several others have called to see if I needed anything.
Truth be told, I’m writing this earlier in the week, so I’m not sure how many days I’ll go without power, but I can hear the hum of the generator just outside my window. My window AC unit is cranking out cold air. My phone and tablet are charging. And I don’t think I’m going to lose any of my medicine or food. I’m even sipping coffee.
It’s all almost too overwhelming to consider.
There’s a scene in a novel called “Out of Canaan” by Jan Karon. Father Tim, an episcopal priest who lived most of his sixty-plus years as a single man, had just recently married. He’s driving through his small town with his dog by his side one day and he spots residents simply living their lives – stocking the bakery, dining outside, making deliveries – and a truth bomb from his upbringing drops on him:
“Count your blessings, his grandmother had told him. Count your blessings, his mother had often said.
“He eased around the monument and headed west on Lilac Road.
“Did anyone really count their blessings, anymore? There was, according to the world’s dictum, no time to smell the roses, no time to count blessings. But how much time did it take to recognize that he was, in a sense, driving one around? Hadn’t Harley Welch just saved them a hundred bucks, right in his own backyard?”
Later, while he’s running an errand, Father Tim is thinking about a quote from Patrick Henry Reardon.
“‘Suppose for a moment,’ Reardon had said, “‘that God began taking from us the many things for which we have failed to give thanks. Which of our limbs and faculties would be left? Would I still have my hands and my mind? And what about loved ones? If God were to take from me all those persons and things for which I have not given thanks, who or what would be left of me?’”
Father Tim set his hand on his dog’s head and began to literally count his blessings, starting with his dog.
As I sit here in the dark, while listening to the hum of a generator that is allowing me some of life’s simple pleasures, I’m going to take some time and count my blessings too.
A few years ago, I moved out of a neighborhood I’ve lived in most of my life. It was one of those established neighborhoods where you know everybody’s name if they are the type of people who want to be known.
Alice and her daughter Pam (whom I may or may not have had a crush on) lived on the corner. Bisco and Sadie lived a couple of houses down from them. A retired war veteran named Kaj lived nearby. So did a widow named Germaine, Dennis and his family, a kid named Mike and his family, a man named Kazmir and his siblings, a couple of kids named Tommy and Lori and their mother, more kids named Bill and Phillip and their mother, Stan and Bernice, and finally, Tom, Karen and their children. A few other houses on the block turned over frequently, but for the most part, this was our core group.
Fifty-some-odd years later, most of them have either moved or passed away. But I’ll always remember little things about each of them. Today, I want to tell you about Bisco and Sadie. Maybe it’ll prompt memories of someone from your neighborhood when you were growing up. If it does, I’d love to hear about them.
Bisco (I never knew if this was his real name or not) worked in a packing house, and he was a fun-loving guy who loved to tease my sister and me. Sadie was demonstrative when she spoke, often drawing out her words, as if she were in a perpetual state of surprise (Noooooooo. Reeeeeeeeeeally?!), and she gasped between sentences. She was also as sweet as they come.
After my parents divorced, my mom, sister, and I moved into the neighborhood. I was eight and my sister was five. Mom had to go back to work, so she needed a babysitter. Sadie came to the rescue. During the school year, she walked across the street to make sure my sister and I got off to school in time. During the summer, we stayed at her house, which was always interesting.
Bisco and Sadie were Polish, and occasionally, Sadie would speak Polish. I always suspected she did that when she wanted to curse, but I was never able to confirm my suspicions. Out of curiosity, I looked up a few Polish interjections recently, and I can just imagine Sadie putting her hands on her hips and saying po moim trupie [over my dead body] or kak babcię kocham [as I live and breathe].
Bisco was much less tactful. He actually taught me a few Polish curse words.
He also brought home some of the craziest things to eat from the packing house – including pickled pigs feet, cow hearts and various other animal parts that should never be consumed in my opinion. If he could get me to say, “Ewwww,” all the better in his mind.
As a single mother, I don’t know how Mom ever afforded to pay Sadie, but I can remember Sadie denying money from Mom on multiple occasions because that’s just the type of neighbor she was. Even after my sister and I no longer needed a babysitter, we’d visit Sadie, or she would come across the street to visit us – especially after Bisco died. She’s been gone a long time now, but I’ll never forget her.
I drive by Bisco and Sadie’s former house occasionally, and in my mind, I can still see Bisco on the front porch reading his newspaper and Sadie sitting on the front steps with an iced tea in her hand, chatting with neighbors.
In an age when we barely make eye contact or simply offer a polite wave to neighbors, I want to do my part to be a Biscoe and Sadie in my new neighborhood.
I cross the street to talk to a guy named Mike whenever I see him outside. He would do anything to help anyone, even though he has a lot of challenges himself. And I enjoy chatting with Jerry and his wife Pat who live down the street. For years, Jerry took a widow in the neighborhood to get groceries. I’m also starting to get to know an elderly man named Joe who lives nearby. I won’t be able to speak Polish to any of them, but I can speak in my own language, using my own vernacular. Somehow, I think that would please Bisco and Sadie.
I had a conversation with a friend recently about the supernatural during which I told him the following story from my book Higher Grounds: When God Steps into the Here and Now.
I was probably too young to be going on a mission to save my dad, but when someone you love is in trouble, you answer the bell, no matter the level of your preparation.
My parents divorced when I was eight and my dad got remarried and moved away for work. He eventually settled with his new family in St. Louis.
He struggled with alcohol throughout his lifetime. When he was in his mid-forties and on into his fifties, he spent several stints in rehab facilities. So, that was the goal when his wife called me to say he’d been on a bender for a few days. I was probably twenty-one at the time and had made the drive by myself to St. Louis from Omaha a few times.
Before I left, I visited my grandma – Dad’s mom. I didn’t go to tell her about her son’s current predicament. A mother’s grief is hard enough to bear without knowing every detail. I was just there for a visit because we were close. But the strangest thing happened as I was getting up to leave. She handed me a letter, saying she’d come across it recently, and that I might need it on my trip. The letter was from my dad to his dad, who had since passed away.
“I think it’s the first time your dad ever told his dad that he loved him,” Grandma said.
They had a contentious relationship when Dad was young. I had little doubt that either of them loved the other, but this was the era when men didn’t express such things so easily. You showed your love instead.
I shoved the envelope into my glove compartment and forgot about it. I had far bigger concerns – like finding my father and making sure he didn’t drink himself to death. By the time I reached St. Louis, he’d returned home, but he was a shell of himself. I don’t think he knew I was coming, so when I stepped into the house and met him downstairs in his recliner, he hung his head.
Over the next couple of days, he began to dry out while his wife called around to find a rehab facility that could take him. Dad and I went into his study the first night and shut his door. During our conversation, he pointed to a coin he’d recently received from his AA sponsor, I believe – one that celebrated a certain amount of time in sobriety. Now he’d have to start all over again, but he seemed to be ready.
Admitting your kryptonite to another human is one of the most frightening things imaginable because you always wonder if he or she will use it against you. I saw it as a sign of strength in my dad. And I wanted to come alongside him to help.
He wanted me to take him for a drive, so we got into the car and headed for a cafe not far from his house. We stepped inside, ordered some food, and settled in for more conversation.
This time, we talked about his upbringing. His dad set high expectations for him and wanted him to focus on his education and helping out around the acreage. My grandparents survived the Depression with a backbreaking work ethic, and they expected the same from their children. Dad, being a high schooler, had other ideas.
He wanted to play sports and date the cute girl at school who caught his eye. That didn’t go over well at home, so Dad left as soon as he was old enough to get married. I suspect he spent most of his adult life trying to live up to his father’s expectations, and when he failed to do so, the bottle was his only coping mechanism.
I wasn’t a Christian at the time of this particular visit, or maybe I was but had very little understanding. At the very least, I was looking into the faith and starting to read the Bible, which made me more aware of a bigger presence at work in the world around me.
“You know,” Dad said while waiting for our food to arrive, “I never told my dad that I loved him until I did so in a letter a few years ago.”
My eyes couldn’t have gotten any bigger and my breathing slowed. “I have that letter.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have it out in the car. Grandma gave it to me before I left.”
“You have that letter?”
We both paused for a long stretch.
Dad finally spoke up. “Something’s going on that I can’t explain. But I want you to write this down so we can remember it.”
We both knew God was up to something. In a way, it was a spiritual awakening for both of us. And it changed something inside Dad, who eventually became a Christian. It changed something inside me too.
Since this happened, I’ve made a habit of doing exactly what Dad said by writing these types of experiences down – many of which you’ll find in Higher Grounds: When God Steps into the Here and Now.
I’m a night owl who has been trying to kick against the goads. My goal was to get up early so I could walk. And it felt good to get so many steps in early in the day. But the problem was, I was falling asleep by 10:00 p.m. every night.
Switching back to my normal rhythms has made a huge difference. It does mean getting up later, walking later and responding to early texts later but I’m okay with that. With that said, a small part of me does struggle with the perception that early birds can have sometimes toward night owls.
Get up early, they say, so you can get things done!
As a night owl, what I hear them saying is, don’t be lazy!
Wake up and get to work!
Early birds are often exclamation mark people in the morning. They are excited about taking on the day! So they want me to be excited too!
If it were up to me, I’d disable their exclamation mark buttons and go back to sleep.
I don’t really understand the science behind all of this, but to early birds who might think night owls just need to get with the system, I’d offer this information from an article titled The Biology Behind Early Birds & Night Owls by Julia Ravey.
“We all have our own internal clock which generates a circadian rhythm; a reoccurring pattern running on an approximate 24 hour schedule, with periods of rest and rouse. This ticking of this clock is controlled by a ‘pacemaker’ in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus: a collection of neurons in the hypothalamus which are stimulated by the nerves from your eyes. The neurons in this region of the brain use stimuli like light to signal to the rest of your body what time it is; causing actions which drive our feelings of alertness and sleepiness. This includes the release of chemicals like melatonin, which peaks during the night time, and cortisol, peaking as you wake, as well as altering body temperature. Our circadian rhythm repeats like clockwork to make sure you get your 40 winks once a day.”
A WebMD article by Colleen Oakley says it much more succinctly: “If your circadian rhythm is on the long side, you’re more likely to be a night owl. If it runs short, you’re probably an early riser.”
The most important takeaway from all this is the notion that we all have our own internal clock.
Regardless of whether you are a night owl or early bird, as much as possible, listening to your own body, rather than someone who has a different internal clock, is probably the way to go. I especially find that to be true when it comes to slowing down and living deeper.
If I try to adapt to an early bird schedule, I’m groggy in the earliest part of the day and I’m tired in the evening when I’d normally be at my sharpest, so I lose two parts of my day by trying to conform, making my contemplative time in the mornings or evenings the least effective.
I have a friend, an early bird, who gets up at a ridiculous hour every morning. He goes for a run through his neighborhood, then heads to work before I’m even close to thinking about waking up. He says he can’t focus on reading his Bible that early because he’s already thinking about what he needs to do for the day, so he bucks the system and reads it before he falls asleep at night and it reorients him, setting himself up for the next day. That has worked for him for many years.
Let’s cut each other some slack. I’ll do better about kidding people who go to bed early and maybe you early birds can go easier on us night owls.