While researching the history of pigments and paint, I happened upon a small hidden gem in the form of a poem on Pedro da Costa Felgueiras’ website: Lacquer Studios. For those with an interest in paint, pigments, restoration or the meticulous craftsmanship and artistry of traditional decorating techniques, who have not already come across the work of da Costa Felgueiras, a simple internet search will lead you to a treasure-trove of images of his incredible use of traditional pigments.
While I could write much more about what I love about da Costa Felgueiras slow process and meticulous approach, the inspiration for today’s post does not come directly from his work but from a small exert of the poem discovered on his website.
The poem, titled ‘The Builders’, was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1850. If you can take the time, I would recommend reading it as a prelude to the rest of this post.
I have always been drawn to the long and wide view. I believe in the value of a lifetime of dedication and the idea of good work done for its own sake; beyond any external rewards or recognition, done for the sheer pleasure and satisfaction of the feeling of a job well done.
That deeply satisfying feeling of a job well done pushes many of us to strive to do the best that we can. But there is an awareness that exists beyond this inherently satisfying feeling, that when kept in mind, can serve as further motivation to persist and strive, even when there is no external reward in sight.
When we consider our life from a long and wide perspective, we begin to see that every decision and new step we take is built on what came before and lays the foundation for what will come after. We often perceive the events that unfold in our life as more fragmented and isolated than they are. This inability to keep the deep connections between the events in our lives in mind often leads us to react to our immediate emotions rather than acting from a place connected to our deepest values and long-term goals.
One of the paths to a life well lived is learning to cultivate a more holistic view of our lives. This view is rooted in the understanding that everything is connected and that all of the seemingly small and insignificant elements string together to build a sum that is greater than the individual parts.
Fate, destiny, randomness, whichever name we choose, is always walking alongside us, exerting its extraordinary influence on the course of our unique path. And yet even though so much of the course of our lives is determined by chance, the decisions we make, the actions we take and the thoughts we cultivate are always interacting with fate, moving alongside it, completely and inseparably intertwined.
While we may have little control over the chance events that end up shaping so much of the course of our life, we do have some control over the small choices we make on a daily basis. The fact that small choices compound over the course of our lifetime, exerting an influence far greater than each individual part, infuses each small decision we make and each thought we choose to cultivate with a deep sense of meaning and a value far beyond what is immediately apparent.
There was a study carried out by Harvard University that provided a small insight into one of the mechanisms that drives this principle. Under experimental conditions students were given the opportunity to engage in dishonest behaviour in the form of cheating. The researchers found that those students who engaged in dishonest behaviour were subsequently more likely to down-rate the importance of honest behaviour. However, those students who opted not to cheat subsequently held moral behaviour in greater esteem.
The mechanism that this research brought to light was how one small decision could shift and shape the direction of our values and morals. Because we humans have a strong desire to justify our behaviour and to see our actions as aligned with our values, in order to avoid the discomfort of our actions grating against our morality, we will at times adjust and shift our values to accommodate our actions. The researchers discovered that “once people behaved dishonestly, they were able to morally disengage, setting off a downward spiral of future bad behaviour and ever more lenient moral codes.” Many years down the line, the ripples of one seemingly small choice or action at a time, could lead us to an entirely different place to where we otherwise might have been.
The thoughts, beliefs and actions we cultivate today layer onto one another, subtly shaping and moulding our view of the world and who we will be within it. The small thoughts we cultivate and choices we make, and those we opt out of, don’t just exert their influence directly. Seemingly more consequential than the immediate impact of these tiny fragments on our lives is the way they shape the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what kind of a world we live in.
This long and broad view, with its emphasis on the importance of the small internal choices, is central to infusing our choices and actions with a sense of meaning. Many of us pin our hopes for a life well-lived on those grand but rare events in life that profoundly alter the course of everything that comes after them. But these pivotal moments in our life can often be completely out with our control. The small choices we make on a daily basis, on the other hand, are something we have much influence over. And they matter, whether we get recognition for them or not.
This understanding of the profound significance and cumulative impact of the small and the unseen, is so beautifully brought to light in Longfellow’s poem ‘The Builders’. Written nearly 200 years ago, his verses offer clarity and assurance for those on the slow and long path to a life well-lived.
His opening verses: “All are architects of Fate, Working in these walls of Time;”
captures the idea that the decisions we make will play out their fateful consequences whether we engage with them actively and with care or let them unfold passively without intention.
As illustrated by the Harvard University research, every deed and decision serves as a foundation for what will follow. Longfellow too emphasises that nothing is useless and that even the seemingly small actions we choose and attitudes we cultivate all pave the way for what will come next.
His words lend support to the feeling that there is great value in investing time, effort and care into developing the unseen elements of our lives. While many of us spend time focusing on those parts that are visible to others, those aspects that we can receive praise and admiration for, his poem encourages us to invest in building strong foundations for those crucial elements of our character that will remain unseen. For, as he puts it: “the Gods see everywhere”.
“Build to-day, then, strong and sure.
With a firm and ample base;
And ascending and secure
Shall to-morrow find its place.”
The Builders is a meditative invitation to embrace the value of working to the best of our abilities even when we know that this work will remain unrewarded. The hard work of living mindfully, in a way that is aligned with our values, is done not for external praise or reward but in the understanding that the work we put in today adds up to creating who we will become tomorrow.
“Thus alone can we attain
To those turrets, where the eye
Sees the world as one vast plain,
And one boundless reach of sky.”
For only through developing a practice that pays attention to the seemingly small details, even when these are not externally validated and are visible only from within, can we hope to foster that beautiful, all-encompassing vantage point from which we are able to recognise that we are part of something far greater than ourselves.
Images above show our Safari Daybed, Kapok Safari Daybed Mattresses in Plain Stripes, Traditional Stripes and Soft Charcoal, Extra Large Handwoven Cotton Cushion Covers in Plain Stripes and Soft Charcoal, Classic French Table Glasses, Handmade Heavy Linen Napkin Set in Warm White, Handmade Fluted Soup Bowl, Stonewashed Baguette Flatware Set, Frame for Life book by Ilse Crawford, Handmade Crushed Linen Blanket in Natural, Handmade Firesand Crackle Glaze Dish and Hand Carved Condiments Spoon (coming soon).