The Jar of Life story reminds us to put what is most important to us first, so that the little stuff will not crowd out what is important to us. The Jar of Life story is typically set in a classroom, and the teacher is a professor. This story is a different take on the Jar of Life, with a different kind of teacher. The lesson is the same.
A man was feeling troubled. He felt as though life were passing him by. The days kept coming, but they were not how he had pictured his days at all, when he pictured his life.
His life did not seem to be his own—so many minutes were accounted for even before he got to them.
He went from one thing to another, and something or someone always wanted something of him. Another email or task for work, another repair or update on the house, another errand. One task led to another; one repair led to another; one update led to another. He didn’t seem to have enough time for his family—at least in the way he wanted. He certainly didn’t have enough time for his friends. And he didn’t have time anymore to do the things he loved.
The troubled man wondered how much longer it would go on this way. Next week, he told himself, next month. Next season. This is a crazy time of year. As much as he told himself this over and over, the new days, when they came, were just like the old ones. His life was being frittered away on tasks and to-do items. He’d tried every to do list imaginable, and had tried to tackle things as soon as they came up, hoping that by working as efficiently as possible, he would have the time for more of his real life—the life he wanted. Get the little things done and out of the way, he told himself, to make room for the big stuff. But somehow, no matter how many items he checked off the list, more and more seemed to rush in to fill the void. At the end of the day he felt just as behind as he did when he started it. His days were so packed, but somehow, still, they managed to feel empty.
The troubled man knew that there must be something more, and another way to live. He had heard about a wise man who lived in a small house by the lake. When the day came when the troubled man couldn’t take it anymore, he took the day off and started walking in that direction. He walked until he found himself at the wise man’s door, and then he knocked.
The wise man opened the door. The troubled man began to tell him how he felt, ending with, “I don’t know how to stop living this way.”
The wise man nodded. He raised one finger, stepped back inside, and closed the door quietly. The troubled man wondered if he was supposed to stay or go. When he had just about given up and decided to turn around, the wise man opened the door, holding two small buckets.
“Take these down to the lake shore,” he said. “Fill the first bucket with pebbles, and fill the second with dry sand from the beach. Come back when your buckets are as full as they can be, but you can still carry them.” He handed his visitor the buckets, and closed the door.
The troubled man stood there looking at the buckets, wondering if the wise man was serious. But he went down to the water, and did as he was told.
When the troubled man returned, the wise man invited him in, and gestured for him to set the buckets down on the wooden countertop, and sit at a stool next to counter.
“Coffee?” he asked. When his guest answered yes he filled two mugs, and filled them to near the brim. He set them on the counter, one near the troubled man, and one next to the buckets. He reached for an old mason jar sitting on the windowsill, and set it on the counter.
“Are you a golfer?” the wise man asked, reaching under the counter.
“My partner and I love it,” the troubled man said, “But I can never seem to find the time.”
The wise man pulled out a container of golf balls. “I have neighbors who golf, and practice by hitting into the lake. Many of them end up on the shore here.” He began to drop the golf balls into the mason jar, one by one, until they nearly reached the top.
“Would you say this jar is full?” he asked.
The troubled man leaned forward to look closer, holding his mug with both hands. “Yes,” he said.
The wise man took a handful of pebbles from the first bucket, and poured them into the jar slowly, shaking the jar every so often so the pebbles would find their way into the spaces between the golf balls.
“Now would you say it’s full?” he asked.
The troubled man smiled. Yes, he agreed, now it is full.
The wise man then picked up the bucket of sand, and began to pour it into the jar, once again shaking it up a little so that the grains of sand would find their way into the remaining gaps in the jar. He filled it to the brim. “And now?” he asked.
The troubled man laughed. Yes, now it is really full.”
“You might even say it’s packed,” the wise man said.
He picked up his cup of coffee, and took another small sip. He leaned against the counter, staring at the full mason jar, seeming to contemplate its contents. Then he leaned over and began to pour his coffee into the jar. He emptied the entire mug, this time truly and completely filling the jar.
“And now it is completely—” the troubled man started to say.
“I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life,” the wise man began. “The golf balls represent the important things – your family, your friends, your health, your passions and purpose. If you lost everything else and had these things alone, your life would be full.
“The pebbles represent things that matter to you like your home and your job,” he continued. “The sand represents everything else…the small stuff.
“If you put the big things first, the little things fit around them, finding their way into the gaps.”
The wise man pulled out another jar, and reached again for the bucket of sand. He poured sand into the empty jar, filling it nearly to the top. He attempted to place a few golf balls into the jar. One barely made it in—just resting on the top—while the others fell out completely, dropping onto the counter.
“If you fill the jar with sand first, there isn’t any room for golf balls or pebbles. Likewise, if you spend all of your time and energy on little things, there won’t be any room left for ones that are important to you.
“Pay attention to the things that bring you real happiness and fulfillment. Play with your children. Take care of your health. Take your partner out to dinner. Watch the sunset together. Get outside and into the world. There will always be time to clean the house and fix the disposal.
“Set your priorities. Take care of the golf balls first…the things that truly matter. The rest is just sand.”
The troubled man was quiet for a few moments. “But what about the coffee?” he asked. “What does that represent?”
“The coffee is pretty simple. No matter how packed your life seems to be, remember that there is always room for a cup of coffee with a friend.”
The troubled man smiled. He looked down into his mug, which was almost empty, and took the last sips. He set the mug down and reached out to shake the wise man’s hand. “Thank you,” he said, and turned toward the door.
“Before you go,” the wise man said, ripping a piece of paper our of a notebook, and folding it. “Take this down to the water and read it. Stay as long as you like. We have beautiful sunsets here.”
“Thank you,” the troubled man said one more time, and walked out the door, toward the steps to the lake. He walked down to the dock and sat near the edge, preparing to settle himself in for another lesson, perhaps even some homework. Instead he found two simple quotes:
Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least. ~Goethe
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. ~Annie Dillard
He sat and watched the sky for a few moments, enjoying this time on the dock in a way he hadn’t allowed himself to in ages. Then, well before the sun began to set, he stood and turned toward home. He waved at the wise man’s house, and started walking, slowly at first, then picking up the pace. There’s still time to make it home for the sunset, he thought, and there’s someone I’d like to see it with.