dear hilary: no small work

Dear Hilary,

There is a saying, “there are no small parts, only small actors.” I think it’s meant to tell us that we are all important, somehow, that our one line in a play is not less meaningful than the monologues, our place at the back of the corps de ballet is not unimportant, even if we might never be cast as the lead in Tchaikovsky. But Hilary, is that true everywhere? How can it? Aren’t we supposed to want the work to be meaningful? Aren’t we supposed to seek positions of influence and do good in them? Aren’t there small jobs? And small work?

My work feels small

Dear My work feels small,

My answer is a resounding and beautiful and emphatic no. There is no small work. There is no small work in a world where something as simple and apparently stupid as being the person on the bus who always asks their seat neighbor how they are can change everything. There is no small work in a world where the right sentence in an email, the right amount of foam on a latte, the best swept ballroom or the newspaper print copy edited for the fiftieth time can be an expression of love.

And it can always be that.

The phrase about small parts and small actors leaves out the truth about small actors. They are not small because they wished for a bigger part – they are small because they didn’t imagine how they might love and live wild in their small part.

It isn’t selfishness, I think, to want and long for meaningful work. It isn’t selfishness to fall into the trap that tells us that meaning is attached to power. There is a lot of good we can do when our voices can speak speeches and our hands touch many people and our platforms have followers galore. There is a lot of good, a lot of beautiful, we can do when we can bend the ears and minds of those around us.

But we will only do that good if we build, bird by bird, moment by moment, latte and copy edited letter and email and photocopy, a heart that’s widened with an imagination for love.

We have to build up a heart for love. And then we have to love.

Do that, and there will be no small work.

There will be days when the work feels small. When you wonder how any of it can be about love, or about influence, or about the big ideas we once had about changing the world. There will be days when the purpose of vacuuming eludes you. When the tenth meeting about the color of the balloons runs you ragged. When answering the phone feels as important as counting specks on the wallpaper. When you cannot think about babysitting for one more second before you think, I have no idea what this accomplishes in the world…

I cannot promise you, my sweet friend, that we will always trust that our work matters. We probably won’t. But if we do it even then? If we dare to tell ourselves in those moments that even this work (maybe especially this work), is always about the depth and quality of our love, the tenor and passion of our one-liner in the great play? If we dare to imagine ourselves away from the simple chasing after power?

Oh, then, I think we will change the world.

One latte, one photocopy. One smile, one remembered favorite coffee flavor for a coworker. One promise, one extra twenty minutes of laughter and compassion behind closed office doors, one email at a time.

Because there is no small work in a world this hungry for love. 

I dare us to love it that much together.



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