ost children dream of what they’d like to be when they grow up, and most adults dream of what they’d like to accomplish in their life. Aspirations abound—becoming president or astronaut, Nobel Peace Prize winner, or the blessed soul who finds the cure for cancer. Worthy goals—all of them.
Without consciously intending to, however, we can slide into the assumption that these would be the things that would make our lives worthwhile. When we don’t attain them, we risk feeling diminished, disappointed, despairing, failed.
If you have won the Nobel Peace Prize, congratulations: I’m not diminishing that very worthy accomplishment. But if you haven’t, that doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been of value. Even if you were yet to achieve that eminence, I wonder if you would later report that as the single most meaningful moment of your life.
An author recently challenged me to rethink my most precious memories, suggesting that the most valuable might not be those typically thought of as most important, but small, precious minimoments instead. As a result, I’ve been paging through my mental scrapbook, an interesting way to spend a weekend. Once started, I’d suddenly have flashbacks to precious little-thought-of memories. And the ones that make me smile do seem to be mostly the small moments. What floated to happy consciousness surprised me. . . . You could try it yourself at home.
Childhood Sundays with my family, at the zoo, museum, or park. Or walking to the neighborhood community swimming pool on a sizzling summer day.
The street vendor handing me a bag of roasted chestnuts as I watched the cold New York City air ripple at the unexpected but familiar warmth.
A drive with friends to see Christmas lights, the mother pointing out the Big Dipper, fumbling with a continuing line of battered and hysterical misattempts: the Scooper Dooper, the Skipper Dipper, each more mangled than the last; finally pulling over because we were laughing so hard we couldn’t see to drive.
The time I called out to my nephew in baby talk, and he quick-crawled to me, put his head on my shoulder, and sighed loudly as if to say, “Finally, someone who speaks the same language.”
The time I drove through the Smoky Mountains with friends, entranced by deer and my first-ever marmot. And the “precious marmot” jokes we told for months afterwards (the friends and I, that is, not the critters).
And there were endless snippets of joy, like the first time I saw, in person, a piece of art I’d studied in college. The first time I drove from Michigan to New York and back, solo, in the winter, through a blizzard, a flat tire, a multiple-car accident—arriving home completely exhausted but exulting that I had survived.
A sunset so heart-stoppingly breathtaking that I joined a line of cars pulled off the side of a bridge, all the passengers just staring, nodding shyly to each other at this wonderful thing that bound us, total strangers, momentarily and intimately together. The student who blurted out, “You can’t leave here till I graduate.” The woman who approached me in the checkout line to thank me for my kindness to her in the frozen food aisle.
If God calls me to be president, I had better step up. In the meanwhile, I must refuse to accept the lie that I have value only if I’ve made some dramatic, newsworthy contribution. Or that I can count myself truly blessed only if God has done a publicly dramatic work in my life. Or that I have nothing to be grateful for since things haven’t turned out as I planned.
I must consciously refuse to focus on my regrets and failures except to learn and grow from them. I must resist comparing my life to someone else’s just to determine if mine was worth the living.
I’m learning to treasure the small moments of which each life is truly composed, to intentionally seek each day to notice the myriad joys—actually stalking them down if I have to, to force them into focus.
And I will remember to give thanks to a gracious God who, in His extravagance, has gifted me not just with a handful of big moments, but with profligate mountains of little ones.
Valerie N. Phillips is associate director of the women’s residence hall at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where she has ministered to collegiate women for more than 25 years.