In My Own Write: Little and often

Three words that point the way to a better life.

The Little Prince 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
The Little Prince 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
I happened to drop in on a friend as she was using some eye drops. She has a condition that requires constant lubrication, and she takes this cheerfully in stride, as she does everything else. She also always has interesting snippets of information to share.
“Do you know what my ophthalmologist told me?” she began. “Last year, a controlled study was done to test how accurately people reported their use of eye medications.
“An invisible electronic measuring device was attached for a period of time to the bottom of bottles of eye drops that people took home with them for various conditions requiring ongoing treatment.
“The researchers found that, on the whole, people used 30 percent less of the drops than they claimed they did.”
This reminded me of an exchange I had in summer 2009 with Jerusalem nutritionist and dietician Edite Tzevi, whom I consulted after a blood test revealed that my “resting” blood sugar level pointed to a condition called metabolic syndrome. If ignored, my doctor warned, it could eventually lead to diabetes; but the condition could also be reversed through diet and exercise.
“What a drag,” I remember my reaction as being. (Who jumps for joy at the news that they need to diet and exercise?) In the event, it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me; about which, more later.
Another thing the blood test revealed that concerned my doctor was my extremely low level of Vitamin D. Apparently most people, even in sunny climes like Israel’s, lack sufficient quantities of this vitamin, not being able to process enough from the sun and, in many cases, being covered up by clothing (haredim and Arabs), or shielded by sunscreen. There is some controversy about the necessity of keeping Vitamin D levels up, but most medical experts now agree it is essential to good health.
So in addition to adjusting my diet – for example, urging me to eat only whole grains and avoid late-night meals – the dietician advised daily consumption of Vitamin D, starting with a one-time “booster” mega-dose.
“How many times a week do you take the drops?” she asked me on a subsequent visit.
“Every day,” I replied. “Just like you told me.”
I was surprised to see how surprised she was at hearing this. She then told me that in her experience, “every day,” as reported by clients, actually meant four or five times a week at most.
It seemed that I was something of an exception for really using the drops on a daily basis.
I had also begun a little daily exercise using weights.
I am moved to share this personal story because it illustrates the words “little and often,” which I overheard in a snatch of conversation on a bus. The wisdom and power of this banal-sounding phrase – borne out by my own experience – inspired me to make it the subject of this column.
Over a period of several months, I lost a few kilos; my Vitamin D level rose from a meager 13 to a very respectable 53; and another blood test showed that I no longer had metabolic syndrome.
All highly gratifying; but it was accompanied by an unexpected benefit that nearly eclipsed everything else. I still consider it miraculous.
I had suffered from ongoing joint stiffness and pain for about 20 years, and it wasn’t getting any better. Osteoarthritis rarely does. It affected my quality of life quite a lot and I was beginning, reluctantly, to read up on hip replacement.
It was around that time that I began the diet, Vitamin D and exercise prompted by the sugar scare.
Within a very short time, my joint felt significantly easier. After several months, the improvement was around 80 percent. Today, after almost two years, I have to force myself to remember that I ever suffered any joint pain at all.
Since I made no other lifestyle changes, I am forced to conclude that this amazing reversal in a 20-year condition not known for spontaneous improvement was due to weight loss, Vitamin D (said to be beneficial for joints), and exercise. I have also been practicing the Alexander Technique for many years.
But what I want to emphasize is this: I made only small alterations to my diet, but have largely kept to it; I’ve continued taking Vitamin D (and also calcium) regularly; and my exercising with weights, which I do unfailingly and which has strengthened my leg muscles, takes up just two minutes of my day.
Did I hear someone say “little and often”? I BELIEVE that beyond the realm of good health, these three words point the way to a better, and happier, life.
It’s very human to gear up for the big effort, the grand gesture, the pressured all-nighter before exams, the expensive gift once a year to show a partner love and appreciation. The rest of the time, we tend to let things slide and hope for the best.
But the above actions pale compared to “little and often.”
The big effort – as any successful sportsman can attest – succeeds only when it is composed of an endless series of small efforts, regularly undertaken. The grand gesture – a boss awarding a bonus, for example – is welcome; but less welcome, it appears, than ongoing feedback and recognition of a job well done. Some years ago, a New York Times writer noted that in a range of workplaces he visited, he asked employees: “Would you rather have a small raise in salary, or more appreciation from your boss?”
He had expected them to plump for the financial increase, but noted, with some surprise, that all opted for more appreciation.
As for studying, every student knows in his or her heart that little and often (or, they might rightly mutter, much and often) is what leads to good grades and solid degrees.
In the typical domestic scenario, men buy their wives or partners pricey gifts on their birthdays, and take them largely for granted the rest of the year. Yet relationship experts have noted time and again that what makes a woman feel cherished is not the monetary value of a gift, but the spirit in which it is given.
While birthday gifts have their place, it is the frequent small gestures of caring – a flower, a special treat, the offer of help when it’s needed – that make women feel really good about their partners, and about the relationship.
In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s enchanting classic The Little Prince, the young hero leaves his tiny planet to explore other worlds and learn the secrets of life. On Earth, he meets a fox, who poignantly teaches him what is important: friendship and winning another’s trust; or, as the fox puts it, “taming” that person.
The author doesn’t use the words “little and often,” but they are present, nevertheless.
Taming requires a great deal of patience, the fox tells the little prince. He must come to the same place every day, at the same hour:
“First you will sit down at a little distance from me… I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me every day….”
In our modern world, which frequently applauds the instant and the disposable – including in relationships – the fox’s lesson on how to draw another being close is an invaluable one. It’s about advancing slowly and carefully, about remaining constant and faithful, and about investing one’s time.
Think of the stone that is gradually worn away by single drops of water falling on the same spot, over and over. It seems amazing, hard to believe – but that’s the power of “little and often.”