Anne Lamott opens her book Bird by Bird with an episode from her childhood that profoundly shaped her decision to become a writer and continues to influence the way that she works. She recalls: "Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."
As this story illustrates, when we face difficult tasks, our greatest challenge is often just getting started. Anxiety and expectation can paralyze us. In these situations, the key to success is taking action—any action, even if it seems futile or off the mark. One can always correct mistakes later. The courage to act generates its own momentum, and once we begin to move forward, our confidence and our competence tend to expand by leaps and bounds. Progress is incremental, but once we start, it is also real. Bird by bird. Or, as another teaching puts it, the greatest journey begins with a single step.
I believe that this lesson lies at the heart of the Chanukah story. What is the real miracle here? The fact that a day’s worth of oil lasted for an additional week is relatively small time. Measured against, say, the plagues, or the parting of the Red Sea, slow burning fuel is really no big deal. The remarkable part of the story is the faith of the Maccabees. Given that small cruse of oil, they might very well have thought to themselves: “Since it will go out in a day, why bother to light it at all?”
Instead, they determined to kindle that lamp, to move forward with the hope and faith that, with God’s help, they would find a way to continue that journey on the morrow.
This week, as we celebrate Chanukah, recall the times that you have moved forward in your life, despite your anxiety, taking that single step that began a significant real or metaphorical journey. Let that memory sustain you through your current challenges, knowing that if you take them “bird by bird” you can, indeed, succeed.