My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not slipped.
When we walk on a pebbly or unsteady surface, what is our first instinct – to take long strides or small steps? If you are like me, my inner nature instructs me to take small steps. My foot is off the ground for less time with small steps than with long strides, so I find it easier to maintain balance. If I need to make a sudden adjustment, small steps keep both my feet more frequently on the ground so that I can alter my action if necessary. In times of difficult terrain, I find long strides less stable, but on an easy path, I go with long strides.
Proverbs 3:5-8: “Trust the Lord with all your heart, and don't depend on your own understanding. 6 Remember the Lord in all you do, and he will give you success. 7 Don't depend on your own wisdom. Respect the Lord and refuse to do wrong. 8 Then your body will be healthy, and your bones will be strong.”
When things are tough in our lives, some people tend to ignore God and depend on their ‘own understanding’; we don’t move inside to draw on the Presence of God and seek inner guidance. Consequently, sometimes our desires are too lofty, our vision too vast, and our ‘steps’ are too long for the conditions; an ankle can be turned, or a knee dislocated.
An old Chinese Proverb says “It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.”
Small steps are just as effective, if not more effective, in taking us to our destination, or intention, as long steps. In fact, I found that I can walk more quickly using a shorter stride that a longer one. The turn-over of my steps is more rapid with a slightly smaller step and I cover more ground in the same period of time. It may look more ‘manly’ to take long strides, but it puts more pressure on the front of the legs and feet and can cause shin splints and other injuries.
This principle of taking small steps applies to many areas of our lives. We are coming up on half-way through this year. How are we doing on our resolutions and the things we are thanking God for materializing into our lives. If we don’t do our part, most of us will be putting many of the same items back onto our list again: lose weight, eat better, exercise more, be a better person, be more forgiving, be more loving, be more giving, be a better spouse, a better parent, more spiritual, more financially responsible, and list goes on.
In each instance, the idea of taking small steps can be more effective than taking large strides and falling back. Sometimes a ridiculously small step is necessary. For instance, suppose we want to improve our oral health in this year. We usually put down things like: floss more, brush our teeth more, and other such vague things.
So, we start off the year with a vengeance, taking long strides; we attack our mouths with flossing, brushing, rinsing, spraying. On average, research indicates that this goes on for about two months, and then we fall off balance, stumble backwards, and stop all this new behavior. Studies show that 30% of the resolutions are abandoned by the end of January, and 80% are forgotten within 8 – 10 weeks.
This is typical scenario for establishing new behaviors: the steps are too large to maintain. Rather, let us ask ourselves this question, “What small trivial step can I take toward improving the quality of my oral hygiene?” It is too vague to answer, “I will floss more often.” That is still too large of a stride to maintain daily. Even to floss once a day is too large. It needs to be something that, without fail, can be maintained daily.
So, suppose we say, “I am going to floss one tooth everyday for 30 days.” Two things are going to happen at the end of the thirty days: we are going to have one very clean tooth, and we are going to establish the habit of picking up the floss every day.
At the end of thirty days, we can then decide to floss two teeth, then three teeth and so on, until we are flossing all of our teeth. If it starts to feel burdensome, then we back off to the comfort level that can be maintained daily – all the upper teeth one day and the lower teeth the next; whatever works for us and our schedule.
What we will find is that at the end of the year we will still be flossing because we dared to take small, almost insignificant, steps toward our desire. Henry Ford taught us that “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.”
Suppose we want to develop portion control when we eat, but we love desserts. “What small step can I take to reduce the number of desserts that I eat?” To say, I am going to give up desserts is far too large a step to maintain the pace. But can we toss out the first bite for 30 days? We dish our self up the dessert and the first bite is deposited in the sink as an investment in our health. After 30 days, toss the first two bites, and so on until there are only a couple bites that we are eating or until we decide we really don’t need the dessert after all.
Suppose we want to exercise more? “What small trivial step can I take toward improving my health through exercise?” Again, to say, I will exercise more is too large a step. Try this: while watching commercial television stand up and walk in place for just 30 seconds – no more – during one commercial. Do this for 30 days. Commit only to that amount. After 30 days you may be ready to walk in place for the entire commercial break or do 30 seconds every commercial break. But the first step is only 30 seconds a day for 30 days.
But Patrick, how can doing these small things get me any closer to my goals? The answer is that the steps are so small that you are not aware that you are changing your behavior.
From the Tao Te Ching we learn: Confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.
After walking in place for 30 days – no you won’t be in great shape – but you will have burned some calories, and most importantly, you will have developed a habit of moving your body. After a few months of gradually increasing your walking in place, you will naturally move on to more exercise.
In each of these instances, after six months you will still be pursuing the activity, while taking small steps, instead of stopping entirely after 8 to 10 weeks and doing nothing for the rest of the year. The secret is making the first step so small, so insignificant, that it requires almost no effort.
Lao Tzu said: A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.
John Wooden puts the idea this way: When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.
Our greatest challenge is not in taking the steps necessary to attain our desires, it is in overcoming our Western mindset that results require great effort, large goals, great determination, and great perseverance. Sometimes it’s just as simple as: get started, don’t stop.
John Steinbeck shared a success secret in writing books. “When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all that I can permit myself to contemplate.”
The Bible says in Matthew 6:34: Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Small steps, small things, one day at a time…this is what the Bible teaches and what Spirit guides us towards.
Helen Keller knew this. She said: I long to accomplish a great and noble task; but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.
If we find ourselves hesitating, or dreading an activity, then the step may be too large. Back off to a smaller step. It is also important not to be pressured by others into taking larger than comfortable-for-you steps. Be true to the guidance from within. These should be small and easily attainable steps.
And so it is with our spiritual lives – we can take a small step to improve our relationship with God at any moment of our choosing. Or we can be like the guy that says, “How often do I pray? I pray almost every morning. But sometimes things get in the way. For instance, Monday morning I got up and went into my study to pray. But then the phone rang, and I had to get it. Turned out I had to leave early for work. So, I almost prayed on Monday. Then on Tuesday … I almost prayed. So, you see, I almost pray every day.”
Some people think their lives are too busy to be with God. But can we spend just one minute a day in prayer and meditation? Regardless of how busy our schedule, everyone has the time to sit for one minute and say, “My dearest God, fill me and all Your children with Light, love, joy and peace. Thank You. Amen.” Then sit still for one minute in silence. Isn’t it better to meditate for one minute a day than not to meditate for 30 minutes a day? After 30 days we may find that we would like to sit longer in the silence.
Christ tells us that the Kingdom of God is within us; it is near. We are being called inside to be with Spirit, not “out there.” Even if we like to be out in Nature to experience God, where do we experience that feeling of peace? Isn’t it happening inside?
Whether in our spiritual lives, our health, our finances, our relationships, or any other area of our lives, Christ offers to lead us one small step at a time in the direction of our happiest dreams and our highest good. It is my prayer that we release the control the world has over us, bless the lessons in our lives, and take a small step to go inside to find our God.