Small, Ordinary Bricks 🧱
they comprise our life, mortared one at a time
“You build a life, and then that life builds you.”
I’ve been thinking about the above quote since our drive back from Ohio this past weekend.1 It’s not profoundly philosophical and the basic premise is copied and pasted in hundreds of ideas, from karma to reaping-and-sowing. But I like this particular turn of phrase: you build a life, and then said life builds you.
I picture it similar to those habit-building hacks floating all over the internet. You want to quit sugar? Throw out all the sugar in your house. The next time you hit up the pantry for a fix — boom, no sugar in sight. You’ve built for yourself a life that eats no sugar. Want to become a runner? Sleep in your running clothes, put your running shoes right by the door, and commit to running around the block first thing in the morning. Done — you’re one step closer to becoming a runner. Your surroundings are designed in such a way that your life functions similar to that of a runner.
This idea is true beyond habits, of course. You build a house (either literally or via signed papers), and the location, style, and size of that house shape the course of your life: how you commute to work, where your kids go to school, the cost of your heating bill, how many people you can have over for dinner at once. You get married, so your life becomes one shared with another person, which then begets children, shared bathroom drawers, and merged calendars and bank accounts. The life you’ve built then builds you.
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As true as all these things are, none of them came first to my mind when I first read this simple quote, because it seems to me like our lives are mostly built of small, ordinary, seemingly inconsequential things. They’re small bricks, mortared one at a time to become our four walls. Our life — this cottage where we hang our hats — is built of our quotidian bricks: how we take our coffee, what time we rise in the morning, what podcasts we play when we’re stuck in traffic, how we move our bodies, the way we greet our spouse and kids after a long business meeting, what we hold in our hands and stare at until we turn off the nightstand light, and how we worship the God of the universe.
These are the things that build up our lives. And then this life builds us.
When I’m ordering cheap, fast-fashion shirts on the same-day warehouse website, I’m adding a brick to my house that values cheapness and speed over quality and subsidiarity — even if I preach to myself (and others) and am convicted otherwise. When I talk constantly about the value of books yet spend most of my night numbingly browsing Netflix, I value visual storytelling over the written sort, no matter what I say with my mouth. When I believe with all my heart that God meets us in the sacraments yet I go months between walking through the confessional door, it doesn’t really matter what I hold to theologically — my daily life choices do more of the talking than any well-crafted treatise. As Sister Helen Prejean says:
“I look at my actions to know what I believe.”
This a tough pill to swallow, but the good news is that this truth works just as much as flipped. When I’ve developed the habit of waking at 6 am for a daily sunrise walk, I’m saying with my life that I value well-spent mornings, thoughtful alone time, life-giving movement, and witnessing that ordinary helio-circadian miracle.
When I read to my kids nightly, I’m telling with my life that books and storytime matter, which in turn means those stories shape us as a family. They become not merely bricks in our houses, but quotidian marvels that lead us further up and further in toward who we’re really meant to be.
When I practice the habit of remembering the little things I’m grateful for, every single day, I’m building with bricks that are sturdy and sure, and not destined to crumble like those bricks made of complaint. When I notice the small goodnesses absolutely everywhere, both day and night, daily on repeat, then my whole worldview changes from one that scowls at every awful thing in the newsfeed to a posture of wonder and marvel that acknowledges the truth that there’s so much sacramental goodness under every place we look.
This is why I created the journal I did — because I want to build a life comprised of wonder, marvel, gratitude, and grace. I want the sort of life that builds me to be one where I’ve done everything possible to cultivate joy. I need to combat self-pity, envy, and restless anxiety, and the best way for me to do that is to build with bricks that are built of sturdier stuff than my own temporal perspective.
I made this journal for you, too, because I’ve heard from plenty of folks over the years they desperately need this just like I do. The time-tested practice of examen is still around for good reason: we humans need a ridiculous amount of reminding that God is always, always, always at work in our lives in the most minuscule ways. It takes daily brick-laying to build a life that’s grateful.
For several years now I’ve cultivated a habit of morning and evening gratitude, each time naming three small, hyper-specific things I’m grateful for (so, not just ‘coffee’ — but the ‘particular Ethiopian blend that’s just been poured into my favorite owl mug’). Within my morning routine, I’ve also added the naming of one true thing about myself or my life that’s sure and steady, no matter what the day brings; as well as writing down the one thing within my control that’ll make this upcoming day a better one.
In the evening, I’ve added one thing I could ask for God’s help with, along with honest acknowledgment of where the day could have gone better — not to beat myself up, but to remind myself that I’m human and that it’s okay because another day is most likely a page-turn away.
These activities are my morning and evening bookends, and they’ve become just that — they hold upright all the stuff in the middle. They’re quick and simple and lightyears away from rocket science, but they work.
Yes, this is me telling you that my journal, First Light & Eventide, is now available to the public, and I’d love it if you found it a genuinely useful way to add more beauty and goodness to your mornings and evenings. Think of the journal as a well-crafted invitation for bricklaying the life that builds you. Ultimately, whether you keep this journal on your nightstand or pencil out some thoughts on the back of a napkin during a red light, this examen-fueled posture of gratitude will change your life if you give it a chance.
I’ll talk more about these ideas in the coming weeks, including this Friday on the podcast (yes — the new season is finally here!). In the meantime, consider this your official welcome mat. Come, build a life that builds you, full of recognition of the small, ordinary things you can’t get over just how grand they really are.
Ora et Labora,
I read it in a book, wherein the author prefaced it with, “And as they say,…” so I looked up the quote and can’t seem to find anyone saying it anywhere else. Apparently, the quote is his and he likes to reference the royal They.