In her acclaimed novel, The God of Small Things (1997, Random House), Arundhati Roy described a world in which unseen billiard balls were constantly smacking up against one another in a daisy chain of causal sequences. For her characters, a seemingly insignificant event on Monday would lead to a series of interconnected micro-decisions throughout the week, culminating in an inevitable life-changing event on Friday, or Saturday. Like so many other classic novels that trace the course of causal sequences, this one mapped the terrain of the downward spiral. It seems to me, that one of the underlying themes compelling readers and authors to consume and produce these tomes has to do with the insight that Arundati Roy captured in her 1990’s novel. One thing has an intriguing way of leading to another.
If the terrain of the classic novel is the downward spiral, it seems to me that the landscape of resilience literature is a study of the virtuous cycle. The resilience researcher is fascinated with positive causal chains that propel research subjects to higher ground.
In my own life, I have found that it is usually in retrospect that I uncover the causal connections that have shaped my own story. This summer, I stood at the deathbed of my friend, Tom Holinga, thanking him for changing the course of my life forty-two years earlier. At that time, I had just concluded high school, and a career of smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day, and two solid years of smoking exotic, mind-altering vegetables. Even a small attempt at athleticism would lead to a fit of coughing, headache, and dizziness.
It took Tom many tries to invite, cajole, and finally, bribe me to go on a short walk with him. Little-by-little, over the course of the summer, my walks with Tom turned into runs with Tom. The lengths of those runs stretched out. That running became a life-long habit that would restore my health and expand into other athletic hobbies including hiking, racquetball, biking and swimming. In addition to the more obvious benefits, other ancillary blessings came my way. I wouldn’t say that running with Lisa was why we got married, but it didn’t hurt either. We had some pretty excellent first dates, and a shared hobby. If research is to be believed, innumerable other benefits have come, and will continue to come my way thanks to a sticky summer afternoon when Tom Holinga wouldn’t give up. One good thing has a way of leading to another good thing.
After a year of pandemic life, are you ready for one good thing leading to another good thing? Resilience research indicates that you don’t have to wait for a random causal event to loop you into a virtuous cycle. The strategic selection of a practice, or significant event can set off a positive causal chain. Ash Wednesday is only days away. Whether you come from a tradition that celebrates Lent or not, perhaps you are ready to initiate something that could lead to this “long, cold, lonely winter” to begin melting? Rather than the usual yearly practice, is there something you have been contemplating that has the potential to initiate a virtuous cycle? If there is, would you consider asking a friend or two to form a support system around the practice you are contemplating? Depending upon your spirituality, it could look like agreeing to hold one another in daily prayerful solidarity. A once-a-week Zoom, phone, or face-to-face meeting could proceed by taking turns filling one another in on how it’s going, and asking for support for the coming week. Occasional encouraging texts could provide a booster shot of encouragement.
Willpower seldom has staying power. Small things like community, support, and love can move mountains. Perhaps the God of small things has some big things in store for you?