In Defense of Minor Obsessions
when details become sacred duty
It sometimes comes upon a man a stroke of insight, the full realization that he must fulfill a noble task which others may regard as silly or insignificant, such as braving a trip alone to a Washington, DC, Whole Foods at 5pm (if hell exists…) to buy sour cream for the chili he has just made, which he refuses to serve to his family without.
You, dear reader, surely have those small things which you refuse to compromise or concede. Don’t you?
I have many. Yes, you might chalk it up to my neuroticism or perfectionism. But I wouldn’t do these things if I didn’t believe that I was, at some level, saving the world.
G.K. Chesterton wrote about his friend who was afflicted with a jammed desk drawer day after day. His affliction stemmed from the fact that he thought the drawer should, and could, open easily. His view was entirely subjective and relative. While this friend was being made miserable by that drawer, he lacked vision.
“If you picture to yourself that you are pulling against some powerful and oppressive enemy,” Chesterton tells him, “the struggle will become merely exciting and not exasperating. Imagine that you are tugging a lifeboat out of the sea. Imagine that you are roping up a fellow-creature out of an Alpine crevass. Imagine even that you are a boy again and engaged in a tug-of-war between French and English.”
“Shortly after saying this I left him; but I have no doubt at all that my words bore the best possible fruit. I have no doubt that every day of his life he hands on to the handle of that drawer with a flushed face and eyes bright and brittle, uttering encouraging sounds to himself, and seeming to hear all round him the roar of an applauding ring.”1
There is also dignity on the line. Beauty may or may not save the world, but I am convinced that my defense of sour cream just might.
The older I get, the more little things seem to matter.
When my mother was in the hospital shortly before the passed away in 2021, amidst all of the horrific things going on, the big things to worry about—death being one of them, and it did come—one of the defining moments of her stay at St. Mary’s was the moment when I remembered to pack her brush on my next strip back to hospital so that I could brush her hair, which had become gnarly from five days confined to her bed. She hadn’t asked me, too; she was not conscious. I acted on a conviction. And it was the most important action that I could take in the entire world.
There have only been a few times in my life when I felt clearly, in the moment, that I was driven by the Spirit—and that was one of them. I knew what to do at every moment during that week, with conviction and with peace, despite the enormous complexity and stress of the situation.
And most of those things were little things.
As the machines beeped, as the sleep-deprived resident doctors shuffled in and out of the room, often with little to no bedside manners, that brush become for us a blazing fire of humanity and a flash of beauty, a tender moment between a mother and her son.
The best ideas have a way of being concretized, of being incarnated. They yearn to be.
The worst ideas, the superficial ones, prefer to hide behind abstractions.
The same is true for love: the greatest love want to find concrete ways of expression.
As I protect the integrity of my chili, or the making of a martini (“would you like vermouth in that, sir?” the hipster bartender asks, unironically), or write a book with ten times more footnotes (which few people will ever read) and a longer bibliography than is ever needed in a trade book, I’ll always convince myself that I am, in some real sense, engaged a cosmic battle.
You may call it fantasy. You may chalk it up to my supernatural view of the world. You might think that it’s merely a useful fiction.
But I’ve looked into the eyes of a small, imaginative child, one who invests me with the kind of sacred power that I’ve come to believe I possess—and which I believe you do, too—and I have seen that searching and probing of that child’s eye looking into mine turn into confidence and peace amid the bustling Christmas markets and policies of winter, and she convinces me that she and I have an understanding. We mediate meaning to one another.
I’ll say it again: a child doesn’t learn metaphysics at school; she learns it by looking into her father’s eyes during a thunderstorm.
The same is true of the importance that we invest in little things. I undertake these tasks with fear and trembling, now more than ever. That matter not only for me and my future; they matter for my mother, for my daughter, for my students. They matter eternally.
I used to think that I had been entrusted with big things, but I had it all backwards. I have been first entrusted with little things. Many of those little things I neglected in pursuit of that slippery virtue of magnanimity, of great-souled things, but “the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning.”2 Now I get it.
In these past several years, I’ve justifiably been asked the question, “What’s anti-mimetic?” Here are a few things: getting your kids to practice on time, maintaining a cheerful household amidst the pressures and anxieties of work and political discourse, taking the time to cook with someone you love, giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless, clothing those who are naked, physically or spiritually. In other words, attending to reality—but most importantly, those realities that are too hidden, or too small, or too insignificant, to matter in the eyes of those who consider themselves wise and the learned.
In these next few weeks leading up to Christmas, I’d like to learn once again how to be poor so that I don’t neglect what is small and simple. Might my family and friends and those whose lives I touch find me faithful in little things.
My desires transcend the trivial! Yet how easy is it to confuse the trivial with the small yet important. These small things are duties; and duties done faithfully are ultimately an act of love.
You will have to decide what yours are, as nobody can know but you. I’m sure that if we shared them with one another, we’d see a tapestry of humanity that would be at once comic and profound.
The most important experiences in life are multi-layered—they’re thick—even when they don’t appear to be so from the outside looking in. And in this way each of us is like a stained glass window.
The girl next to me at the Whole Foods check-out sees me buying a superfluous ingredient; she can’t see the fire.
G.K. Chesterton, from his essay “On Running After One’s Hat”, which can found in the volume In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton.
From C.S. Lewis’s “The Weight of Glory”: https://www.wheelersburg.net/Downloads/Lewis%20Glory.pdf