Dr. Zoe Shaw, A Year of Self-Care

What Is the Magic of the Snowball Effect?

What Is the Magic of the Snowball Effect

Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things. —Robert Brault

Years ago, I was scheduled on a red eye from Hawaii to Houston. Shortly after I sat down in my seat, a middle-aged Japanese woman sat down in the empty seat to my left. “Hello,” I smiled at her before sliding my headphones over my ears, the universal signal that I wasn’t up for conversing. It was close to midnight after all.

But the woman started engaging with me anyway. Not wanting to be rude, I took my headphones off and answered her questions while our plane barreled down the runway. Pretty soon, we were describing what our days consisted of and which beaches were our favorites. She had never lived anywhere but Oahu; I had been living on the island for only a year. We were both childless and apart from our husbands—mine was deployed for a year in Iraq, while hers had passed suddenly a month prior.

As we flew above the Pacific through the night, our lives converged in soulful conversation. She confessed her longtime reliance upon her husband, expressing newfound fears of life without him, being unsure of whether or not her faith would sustain her. I admitted how the thoughts of losing my husband in a war zone haunted me at night.

As the in-flight movie started, she squeezed my arm and offered me half of her snack. After the plane pulled up to the gate, we embraced, wished each other well, and never saw one another again.

Small Moments Are Snowball Moments
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Why do I remember that trip that took place 12 years ago so vividly? Is it because we connected so quickly in conversation, or was it the way we both openly shared about our lives with one another? Was it the similarity of our emotions, or her kind gestures that made that exchange memorable?

Perhaps the only reason I remember that flight was because I realized how small moments possess the ability to leave a lasting impact. That interaction with my seat mate caused me to take stock of the ways I typically engaged with others. It made me notice how often I tended to close myself off instead of remaining open to who or what was in front of me.

The “whos” and “whats” compose the fabric of our lives—the repetitive events, minor interactions with others, and seemingly insignificant moments scattered throughout our days. We may dread them or label them as monotonous or tedious, and hold our excitement for the goals, dreams, and events that are to come at some point in the future.

But consider the metaphorical snowball effect: the image of the round, carefully molded ball of white perched on the top of the mountain. Down the side it rolls, gaining in momentum, traction, and size. It topples down trees and its force becomes unstoppable, in dangerous or beneficial ways.

One might say the snowballs are the small moments that direct the course of our lives.

Snowball Moments Can Change Lives

My daughter and I built a snowball last week. After finishing pandemic homeschool, she was grumpy and on edge. I suggested we go for a walk outside, hoping it would be the outlet we both needed. The first 10 minutes of the walk were tense in between her complaints and my exhausted responses. Then, we stumbled upon a pecan tree growing outside the elementary school front doors.

“Let’s climb it,” my girl yelled.

And so we did. I hoisted myself up into those sweeping branches and sat next to her, quietly staring at the layers of leaves above us. We spotted a caterpillar and became mesmerized with its purple underbelly. We laughed as we took turns jumping off the branches, landing hard on the ground. I vowed out loud to climb more trees, and I noticed both of our moods had lifted somewhere in that tree. The entire moment took up 15 minutes of my day, yet it snowballed into more positive moments together that evening.

Each day, we encounter snowballs waiting to gain traction down the mountainside. We just have to be able to spot them. Here are three ways to get started:

1. Choose to see the small

Highlighting the small moments requires a fair amount of active choosing and practice. We may be tempted to hurry things along, complete our to-do lists, and get on with our days. Is it possible to train ourselves to stop and look more closely at the “insignificant,” like the way my daughter uses her magnifying glass to inspect the legs of the spider on the driveway? I think so, but this requires more practice for some of us. The more we exercise using a fresh lens to see the world around us, the more primed we are to celebrate the small moments in our lives.

2. Discover the magic in unexpected connections

I bet each of us can recall unexpected interactions with strangers or friends that left us speechless. What about the time we took the extra five minutes to sit on our son’s bed, allowing him space to open up about his fears and anxieties, or the time we reached out to someone in need? Snowballs exist in connections, and those connections have the ability to create ripple effects not just in our sphere of relationships, but also throughout the world.

3. Acknowledge the power of the small

We may laugh in agreement with the saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy.” But in those words lies a profound message: as minor as we think they may be, our actions, words, and gestures hold enormous power and can make their way through the halls of our homes and workplaces—for better or for worse. The same is true for any changes we want to make in our lives, for all change begins with the small. The major shifts we’re seeking typically require baby steps which culminate into the long-term rewards and outcomes we’re after.

As we celebrate all the small (moments, interactions, and steps) in our lives, we discover greater beauty in the “whos” and “whats” around us. So always look for the snowballs, dear ones—they’re right there in front of us and may just be the very thing we need.

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