I shouldn’t have let things get so out of hand. But they had, and now I needed to figure out what to do. How was I going to neatly trim the grass from around nearly two dozen stepping stones leading from our patio to our tool storage building? I couldn’t even see the edges of the stones, so thick was the grass, with long runners everywhere.

My new string trimmer would be fast, but could I control it to do such delicate work? I soon found out I couldn’t, after making an ugly mess of the first stone, scalping the grass around it out to three inches or more. So, I resigned myself to a slow, methodical process I had used before. I would pry up the stones, clip the grass by hand, then put the squares back in place. “This is going to take forever,” I complained to myself, but I wanted everything to look good, so I kept at it.

As I sat there on the grass, I reflected that slow, methodical work can pay off with great rewards. I could have gone in with that trimmer spinning line at blinding speed and chopped up the grass around those stones in very little time, but I wouldn’t have been happy with the results. In the same way, we can try to solve problems quickly, without the slow, tedious work of building relationships and seeking true understanding. But do we gain a friend, a lifelong customer or client, an ally in our trouble that way? Or do we simply placate an enemy, stave off the inevitable confrontation, leave resentment festering unhealed? We can make changes quickly in an organization and get our way, but where is the broad ownership that will ensure that when we have gone elsewhere, what we tried to do will last?

I realized something else as I clipped the grass by hand. The brutal, “macro” approach of the weed whacker is fine sometimes. But this job required subtlety, an appreciation of the impact of “micro” changes. Only by hand could I clip a strand of grass here, pull up a root there, and get the manicured look I wanted. I discovered the effect of subtlety as well when I mowed the lawn on Wednesday. I raised the wheels up only one notch, but it made a tremendous difference in how well the mower mulched. The lesson continued as I played an old Neil Young song. An “F” chord sounded close in the verse, but an “Fmaj7” was even better, and so with an Em and a G which I changed to Em7 and G6, respectively. Subtle differences, adding but a single note, subtracting another, brought me closer to the true sound of Young’s tune.

Nuance. Detail. We seem to have lost our patience with such things in our society. We will not sit still for a carefully reasoned speech or a close reading of Scripture. We refuse to pay attention to the context of someone’s comments. Just give it to us straight! Put it on a bumper sticker or capture it in a sound bite or a video clip! So we end up with bad policies, awful theology, and poor understanding of the big consequences of small actions.

But just as one note can make a difference in a chord, so can one word, spoken well and at the right time in a conversation. As one notch up on my mower improved the look of my lawn, so can some thought about and sensitivity to detail in business, family or romantic relationships bring very positive results. As my slow, methodical approach to clipping grass around stones gave me satisfaction from a job well-done, so will a sense of timing and willingness to do painstaking work prove wise in the long run.

So, next time you have a big problem, think about ditching the weed trimmer and grabbing the clippers.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham