Not long ago, I bought a set of thimble-sized bottles from the dollar store. I’ve always been a sucker for small objects, such as travel-sized toiletries, mini fruit tartlets, and tiny figurines of glass one might find at a craft fair. For my mom’s last birthday, I bought her a locket containing the entire Hebrew Bible. There’s a certain completeness to little things that pleases me—perhaps because so much in my life can feel oversized and overwhelming. Not a day goes by that I don’t brush up against a situation with huge holes and missing pieces that I cannot fix in the short (and maybe even long) term. Try as I might to cobble solutions together, they still elude me, finite being that I am.
I’m not sure why, but I felt compelled to fill one of the bottles with rice grains and tie a ribbon around its neck. Over the years I have gained both insight and provision this way—by following a faint intuition, like a foxhound chasing a scent whose source I do not yet know. All I have to go on is a sense of rightness about the direction I have chosen, as if an inner compass were guiding me to a good place. This inner leading isn’t infallible, but it’s been beneficial enough to pay it some mind.
Right now what I am sensing as I stare at my bottle is that I should use this holiday season to consider—very closely—the gift of “the little” in my life. Particularly those areas of “little” that initially present as curses rather than blessings, lack rather than plenty.
The most obvious area of “little” in my life centers upon my nine-year-old son, who has autism. If I had to characterize the journey my husband and I have traveled since my son’s diagnosis at 16 months, I would use words like arduous, painful, and relentless. One by one, we have had to relinquish the dreams all parents have for their children, as our boy’s deficits become more obvious in relation to his peers. Expectations of what he can and cannot do fly from our hearts to the wind, as we wonder how much more his rudimentary speech will improve. Most days, I can hang out with other parents who have typical kids without despairing. But often, something gets seen or said that sticks a knife in my belly. My child is not, and will never be, like most others.
All the hours of developmental therapy, adaptive caretaking, and nonstop reinforcement of simple lessons we want our son to learn seem to barely make the needle move. Like an undertow, autism has a really strong pull on him that is exhausting to fight. But we will never abandon our son to his own devices, knowing that his innate intelligence, curiosity, and joie de vivre would fail to connect with the outside world if we did. And so we labor on, leaning heavily upon the supports God has given, balancing our gratitude for the abundance of help we receive with our heartbreak over how small our son’s progress can appear day to day.
As I reflect on this “needle barely moving” reality for the umpteenth time, the rice-filled bottle beckons me to ask: has this struggle changed me, strengthened me, fed me?
And I must answer, with no small wonder: yes.
Specifically, it has given me a certain acuity of vision. After battling for every inch of progress, the eyes of my heart can now see how hard everyone around me is trying.
My son tries so heroically to make his mouth move so he can be understood by others. I cheer his every syllable when it comes out recognizably.
My husband tries his best to provide for our family, giving his all to our son and to me (I’m equally needy, believe me). I watch him read and do learning apps with our child every evening. Tickle him till he squeals, “All done!” Repeatedly tell him “I love you” to get him through a difficult moment.
I see my husband go off in the morning to an extremely demanding job, where everyone wants a piece of him. And yet when he comes home he still listens to me. When we go out for date nights, he often defers to my choice of venue, because he simply wants to make me happy. Every morning he empties the dishwasher so I won’t have to. Always helps with laundry and groceries. It takes a big man to shoulder so many of the small chores around the house that quickly become chaos.
I watch my 83-year-old mother do anything she can to lift burdens off my back: washing dishes, folding laundry, assisting with meal preparation, running errands, and accompanying me to appointments where another’s presence matters. Now that I am a mom myself, it is easier for me to appreciate how utterly she poured herself out for me when I was a small child—because she’s still holding down the same job.
Then there are the teachers, therapists, caregivers, and other support staff that give 110% to my son. I know that when they crawl into their beds at night, the weariness they feel comes from their efforts to pull him from treacherous waters and set him on firm ground. These noble souls do not look at the mountain of deficits my son has to overcome. Rather, they keep their heads down and help him continue his journey, one step at a time.
And let’s not forget the friends and family who pray for our family, pounding on heaven’s door for answers to problems, fortifying us with their petitions. It’s challenging to pray for your own needs when you are drowning in them. So these faithful saints wrestle with God as the patriarch Jacob once did, refusing to let go until He blesses us (Gen. 32:26).
If I cast my eyes beyond my immediate circle, I can see how desperately people are trying to survive in this fatal, fearful time. Trying to feed and shelter their families, teach their kids, keep it together mentally and physically for the sake of those who depend on them. Many spend their energy on strangers as if they were family: working long shifts, exposing themselves to sickness, holding a hand or extending some other kindness. Do these longsuffering servants feel like the breakthrough needle barely moves for them too?
I can assure you, no matter where you are, someone else is struggling to keep their head above water, just like you. Perhaps if we open our eyes and see how staggeringly hard others around us are trying, the state of our “little” won’t matter so much.
Because we will appreciate how every one of us faces circumstances where we seem to give so much and receive so little in return.
And when our sharpened eyes glimpse someone going under right beside us, we will be more motivated to stretch out a hand. That hand may contain only a grain of rice, but that provision will have the potential to multiply in terms of its impact. It’s amazing how even the smallest demonstrations of love and compassion can make a big dent in a drowning person’s life. I don’t quite understand it, but this dynamic has proven true again and again for me.
Yesterday, my boy’s bus driver invited him to honk the horn (no other kids were left in the vehicle and it was parked safely in our cul-de-sac). Of course my son took him up this offer, and my heart warmed, knowing that someone saw, really saw, my child for who he is and deemed him precious rather than defective. And, oh, how that ministered to my poor mama’s heart.
It would have been so easy for the bus driver to head home after a long route. It cost him some patience to interact with my son. But he did it anyway, because he could. Because he has developed a special appreciation for the “different” kids he drives home. Despite being stuck in the “little” of their lives, they have made a big impression on him.
Long ago the apostle Paul wrote a poem that is often read at weddings, but which I think is especially appropriate during this especially “trying” holiday season.
Love is patient and kind
Love does not envy or boast
It is not arrogant or rude
It does not insist on its own way
It is not irritable or resentful
It does not rejoice at wrongdoing
But rejoices with the truth
Love bears all things
Believes all things
Hopes all things
Endures all things
Love never ends (1 Corinthians 13:4-8 ESV)
As I ponder this list of characteristics, I pray that my encounters with “the little” will help develop them in me. Because no matter what is going on in my life, I want there to be more love—love that I receive and give in all its various forms, whenever and wherever I have the chance.
I know the same is true for you. And for that reason I can say, “Peace to you this season, my friend. I see you trying so hard. It is not for nothing.”
The “little” in your life can be a gift in its own way. If you let it change you.
May God bless and prosper you—in ways both great and small—this season and always. Amen.