For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
That old rhyme has a lot to say. It is usually interpreted as being an admonition to pay attention to the small details from which cascade larger events and possibilities. The implication is that if a small thing is overlooked through lack of attention or laziness, then we may wreak havoc with the outcome of whatever we attempt… either individually or in the larger arena of life.
I thought of this rhyme after a comment was made about the pointlessness of an individual life. It reminded me of conversations with my sons when they were younger, where we established that without their presence in the world, it would not just be my life, but the whole of existence that would be changed. Ineradicably altered. What if we are the horseshoe nail?
I remember discussing with them the effects of their subtraction from existence. All the ‘what ifs’ that shower from that point of erasure. If they were not, then perhaps ten generations in the future the man who changes the fate of the planet would not be born, the cure for cancer not found… how can we tell? The branches of any family tree spread wide and in only a few generations its scions may be far from the original root. Were any one of us subtracted from the great mosaic of life it would not only change the world now, but for all the future yet to come.
Which is all very well, and theoretically interesting, but that doesn’t help the person sitting alone, day after day and wondering why they cling to a life that may seem to be without meaning.
Yet who can know how much difference a single life may make? We don’t always know how our friends really feel, as most have a public face that can hide a great deal and the word of affection, that bit of care, might be more meaningful that we can see. We cannot tell if a casual word of praise or encouragement, a much-needed shoulder or a friendly smile may change the day for another. Nor can we know how hard that day has been, or how many other hard days have preceded it… how tired, lonely, desperate or despairing a stranger may feel. There is no feedback, no report card that says, ‘you saved a life today’… yet it may be true. We can never know.
Even the apparently negative actions of others may be the catalyst for change, the tipping point that galvanises us to address injustice, learn empathy and compassion… so many possibilities flower from each moment and each life and we gather our own lives from that garden.
The life we share is a shared life, the actions of each of us cascade like a domino race across the face of time. Every life has its place, its purpose and its value. Even if we cannot always see it.