I live in New York City, and I love the fast-paced, every-man-for-himself craziness of it all. In fact, when I attempted to move back to Los Angeles (where I grew up) a couple years ago, I found it difficult to adjust to the slower pace despite all the things the area has to offer.
So I came back, and I feel more myself.
But one thing that drives me nuts is the fact that no one here (or LA, for that matter, but on an entirely different level that can’t be explored here) seems to want to do anything small for anyone else. So few people hold doors open, smile at one another, compliment strangers or even say, “Excuse me.” It’s as if doing those things makes someone weak, that we live in a society in which we all believe that going out of our way to help others puts us at a disadvantage, wastes time, and, “besides, they’re not going to thank me for it anyway.”
We are hungry for tiny carrots—likes, upvotes, retweets—that make us feel as though all the things we do matter. But these things happen on the internet. They don’t satiate our need to be social.
It seemingly wasn’t always this way. We see old videos of people holding doors for one another, Boy Scouts helping old ladies across the street, people greeting one another on the street. Maybe it’s all fantasy, revisionist history, who knows—but it sure looks nice.
So I had to ask: Are the little things we do for one another a lost art form? If so, why? And furthermore, can we bring them back? If so, how?
To be clear, I’m not saying people don’t do random things for strangers anymore. Sure, it happens. I’ve helped parents carry their baby strollers up subway stairs. I’ve smiled at people on the street in my neighborhood. I’ve seen others do the same (probably more than I do). But we don’t do it as often as we should.
We Don’t Do Little Things Because We Live in Fear
Doing random things for people we don’t know leaves us open to potential anger and even danger. When I was younger, when I first moved to New York, I offered to help a woman carry her stroller—baby and all—down some stairs in a subway station. She was struggling to get the heavy stroller down the steep stairs, rolling it on its back wheels one step at a time. I paused on the stairs as I was about to touch her and motioned that I would grab the bottom end.
“Don’t touch that!” she rang out. Startled, I shrugged and made my way to my train.
It’s probably that she was having a bad day or that there was something else going on that I didn’t see, but that experience has left me shy and even anxious when it comes to even engaging with strangers in public. We assume that people aren’t really trying to help. She probably thought I was going to ask her for money at the bottom of the stairs, or even worse.
Either way, she wasn’t ready for someone to do something simple for her. It was a shame and a fear I carry with me to this day.
We Don’t Do Little Things Because People Are Tranced-out and Thankless
Five minutes ago (and halfway through writing this article), I ran downstairs to my favorite coffee place. Upon leaving, I held the door open for someone just arriving. He didn’t look at me. He didn’t thank me.
In my head I thought, “Well, fuck you too!” and walked back to my office, huffing and puffing and briefly believing that humans are awful.
Humans aren’t awful, but the truth is that most of us—especially on a Monday at 2pm—are so stuck in our own heads that we don’t even realize others are doing little things, like holding open a door, for us. We’ve become so wrapped up in our own anxieties, work stresses, family issues and everything else that we walk around in what psychologist Tara Brach calls “the trance.” I get caught up in it too, and the crazy thing is that because I’m caught up in my daily trance, I don’t even realize I’m being thankless to those who are doing little things for me.
And every time I do that, I discourage that person from ever doing it again.
We Don’t Do Little Things Because They’re Little
We live in a world in which we seek validation for all the stupid things we do on social media. We are hungry for tiny carrots—likes, upvotes, retweets, etc.—that make us feel as though all the things we do matter. But these things happen on the internet with people we don’t see in person on a day-to-day basis and we somehow believe that they are satiating our need to be social.
We live in a world in which selfishness and self-introspection are strangely in style. This means that while people are doing amazing things on Instagram and YouTube, we’re also, ironically, losing our ability to socialize.
All those things that we think validate us—a snarky comment about something going on in the world, a photo of our dinner—are pointless, selfish acts. Sure, that photo might make someone smile, but it’s a little thing we do that we think makes us look good for online friends.
It’s possible, then, that by the time we go out into the real world—a walk down the street or a commute on the subway—we figure those little things don’t even matter. We want validation for the things we do, so if we’re going to do them in the real world, we think they should be big things. Why? Because we have a better chance of being thanked, recognized and—as it were—validated.
So Can We Bring Back the Little Things?
The short answer is “absolutely.” The long answer is “Who knows?!” The reality is that we live in a world in which selfishness and self-introspection are strangely in style. This means that while people are doing amazing things on Instagram and YouTube, we’re also, ironically, losing our ability to socialize.
But—and I’m sure you saw this coming from a mile away—if we simply continue to do little things for one another, we’ll hopefully bring others out of their holes and back to where we all should be: here.
It takes effort, both to get over shyness as well as fears. We have to remind ourselves that doing a little thing is not only easy, it also won’t take much time out of our day. We’ll even feel better about ourselves after the act.
So here’s to the little things.