The totality of a life at any moment is the product mainly of little things. Trifling choices, insignificant exercises of the will, unimportant acts often repeated,–things seemingly of small account,–these are the thousand tiny sculptors that are carving away constantly at the rude block of our life, giving it shape and feature. Indeed the formation of character is much like the work of an artist in stone. The sculptor takes a rough, unshapen mass of marble, and with strong, rapid strokes of mallet and chisel quickly brings into view the rude outline of his design; but after the outline appears then come hours, days, perhaps even years, of patient, minute labor. A novice might see no change in the statue from one day to another; for though the chisel touches the stone a thousand times, it touches as lightly as the fall of a rain-drop, but each touch leaves a mark.
The smallest thing becomes respectable when regarded as the commencement of what has advanced or is advancing into magnificence. The crude settlement of Romulus would have remained an insignificant circumstance and might have justly sunk into oblivion, if Rome had not at length commanded the world.
Beecher says that men, in their property, are afraid of conflagrations and lightning strokes; but if they were building a wharf in Panama, a million madrepores, so small that only the microscope could detect them, would begin to bore the piles down under the water. There would be neither noise nor foam; but in a little while, if a child did but touch the post, over it would fall as if a saw had cut it through.
Men think, with regard to their conduct, that, if they were to lift themselves up gigantically and commit some crashing sin, they should never be able to hold up their heads; but they will harbor in their souls little sins, which are piercing and eating them away to inevitable ruin.
Lichens, of themselves of little value, prepare the way for important vegetation. They deposit, in dying, an acid which wears away the rock and prepares the mould necessary for the nourishment of superior plants.
It was but a tiny rivulet trickling down the embankment that started the terrible Johnstown flood and swept thousands into eternity. One noble heroic act has elevated a nation. Franklin’s whole career was changed by a torn copy of Cotton Mather’s Essays to Do Good. Taking up a stone to throw at a turtle was the turning point in Theodore Parker’s life. As he raised the stone something within him said, “Don’t do it,” and he didn’t. He went home and asked his mother what it was in him that said “don’t.” She told him it was conscience. Small things become great when a great soul sees them. A child, when asked why a certain tree grew crooked, answered, “Somebody trod upon it when it was a little fellow.”
By gnawing through a dike, even a rat may drown a nation. A little boy in Holland saw water trickling from a small hole near the bottom of a dike. He realized that the leak would rapidly become larger if the water was not checked, so he held his hand over the hole for hours on a dark and dismal night until he could attract the attention of passers-by. His name is still held in grateful remembrance in Holland.
We may tell which way the wind blew before the Deluge by marking the ripple and cupping of the rain in the petrified sand now preserved forever. We tell the very path by which gigantic creatures, whom man never saw, walked to the river’s edge to find their food.
The tears of Virgilia and Volumnia saved Rome from the Volscians when nothing else could move the vengeful heart of Coriolanus.
Not even Helen of Troy, it is said, was beautiful enough to spare the tip of her nose; and if Cleopatra’s had been an inch shorter Mark Antony would never have become infatuated with her wonderful charms, and the blemish would have changed the history of the world. Anne Boleyn’s fascinating smile split the great Church of Rome in twain, and gave a nation an altered destiny. Napoleon, who feared not to attack the proudest monarchs in their capitals, shrank from the political influence of one independent woman in private life, Madame de Staël.
It was a little thing for a cow to kick over a lantern left in a shanty, but it laid Chicago in ashes, and rendered homeless a hundred thousand people.
The discovery of glass was due to a mere accident–the building of a fire on the sand; and the bayonet, first made at Bayonne, in France, owes its existence to the fact that a Basque regiment, being hard pressed by the enemy, one of the soldiers suggested that, as their ammunition was exhausted, they should fix their long knives into the barrels of their muskets, which was done, and the first bayonet-charge was made.
A jest led to a war between two great nations. The presence of a comma in a deed, lost to the owner of an estate five thousand dollars a month for eight months. The battle of Corunna was fought and Sir John Moore’s life sacrificed, in 1809, through a dragoon stopping to drink while bearing despatches.
“You do no work,” said the scissors to the rivet. “Where would your work be,” said the rivet to the scissors, “if I didn’t keep you together?”
Every day is a little life; and our whole life but a day repeated. Those that dare lose a day are dangerously prodigal; those that dare misspend it, desperate. What is the happiness of your life made up of? Little courtesies, little kindnesses, pleasant words, genial smiles, a friendly letter, good wishes, and good deeds. One in a million–once in a lifetime–may do a heroic action.
We call the large majority of human lives _obscure_. Presumptuous that we are! How know we what lives a single thought retained from the dust of nameless graves may have lighted to renown?