pebbles and sand

One of my dear friends and I were talking a few weeks ago about ambition, and busy-ness, and our relentless drive to fill our days with goals that need to be met and lists of items that need to be checked off.  We're both pretty motivated ladies, successful, educated, eager.  One of the reasons we so appreciate one another's company, I think, is that we don't have to apologize for striving.  We know we're going to work hard to get what we want.  We know we're busy.  We expect it from one another.

She was telling me about a friend, someone I've never met.  "You ask him what he's been up to, and he says things like, 'Well, I ate some really delicious ice cream the other day.  And then I found an amazing swimming hole.'  Everyone else answers that question by telling you how busy they've been and how stressed out they are.  There aren't very many people who focus on the deliciousness of ice cream."

No, no there aren't.

There's a story, about a philosophy professor who stood up in front of his class holding a glass jar.  He filled it to the top with several bulky rocks and asked, "Is the jar full?"  The class answered that yes, of course it was - obviously, there was no room inside for more rocks.  Then the professor pulled out a bag of pebbles and poured it in.  The small stones filled the nooks left by the rocks, and the professor asked again, "Is the jar full?"  Oh, yes, it's definitely full now, the class answered.  Then the professor pulled out a bag of sand and shook it into the jar.  The sand wound its way into the tiny spaces between the pebbles.  "How about now?"  This time, certainly, the jar was full, the class responded.  Then the professor cracked open a can of beer, and poured it into the jar.

The jar represents our lives, the professor explained.  The rocks are the most important things - our families, our friendships, our health, the things that, if all else were lost, would still leave us feeling
fulfilled.  The pebbles are other, less important things - our jobs, our cars, our houses.  The sand is everything else - whether the kitchen is clean at the end of the night, whether you remembered to
buy shampoo, whether your lawn looks as nice as the neighbors'.  The little things.

If you put the sand in the jar first, you might be able to layer some pebbles on top, but you'll never fit the rocks inside, he explained.  And the same goes for your life.  If you spend your days focusing on
the thousand tiny annoyances on your checklist, you've got no room left for the things that really
Pay attention to the rocks, he advised.  Everything else is just so much sand.

(Then, of course, one of his students asked what the beer represented.   "Oh, well," the professor replied, "that just goes to show that no matter how full your life might seem, there's always room for a beer or two."  Ba-doom SHA!)

This moment, when I'm questioning the validity of my own striving, seems as good a time as any to also question what, exactly, I'm striving toward.  The thing is, I've achieved a lot of the goals that people my age are "supposed" to be aiming for - I have two degrees, a good job, an awesome spouse.  I own my own home.  There are kids on the horizon.*  I'm doing the things I'm supposed to be doing, and I should be happy, but that feeling of not quite being there - wherever there is - is ever-present.  It just doesn't let up.  I should be more successful! the voice in my head says.  I should be published by now!  I should make more money!  We should start saving for a bigger house!  And nicer stuff!  And I should be a more productive person!  Why is my living room so messy?  Why do I watch so much TV?  Why aren't I more responsible with my time?  Why don't I exercise more, eat better, call my friends and family more often, use more of my free time for writing, keep to a chore schedule, answer emails promptly?  Why don't I blog more often???

Suffice to say, when people ask what I've been up to, my answer doesn't involve the taste of ice cream.

The truth is, I'm afraid to let up on myself.  I'm afraid that if I stop pushing, all of my goals will fall away and my life will feel... meaningless.  There's a big black hole of fear - fear of failure, of disappointment, of inadequacy - that sits right there in the middle of me, and it's easy to fill that hole with pebbles and sand, because there's no shortage of pebbles and sand.  It feels good to feel busy.  It feels useful.

But the true purpose of my life is not to fill that sucking black hole.  I know what I have to do, which is turn away from it, to resist the pull.  Because of this much, at least, I am sure: I cannot expect a life built on a foundation of sand and pebbles to carry the weight of me and everything I am and
everything I want to be and do and see and feel in the course of this small but incredible existence I have been granted.

What would my world look like if I used all of my ambition, all of my crazy type-A motivation, to point myself in the direction of a life that would make me truly happy, instead of prioritizing all the trillion little pointless things that I'm told are supposed to make me happy?

What would it look like to push myself, hard, to find joy?

What would a life built on a foundation of rock feel like?

I don't know.  But I'd like to find out.

Stay tuned.

*Blog post for another day, but no, nobody's pregnant or anything.  Farther horizon than that.  :)


  1. 'The truth is, I'm afraid to let up on myself. I'm afraid that if I stop pushing, all of my goals will fall away and my life will feel... meaningless. There's a big black hole of fear - fear of failure, of disappointment, of inadequacy - that sits right there in the middle of me,'

    Just sitting with you, my dear friend.

    Want to get some ice cream?

    1. Thanks, sweet Suze.

      Ice cream sounds good. You should really just move here so we can grab tea and hash all this stuff out. ;)

  2. Life isn't about the destination, my dear, it's about the journey.

    Being motivated, and having goals and things that mean enough to you to want to strive for can be positive things, but don't make them the driving force of your life because even when obtained, those goals and things will never seem enough -- when we focus too much on "obtaining," we often have the attention spans and erratic nature of moths, flitting from one bright light to the next.

    It's vitally important to remember to take the time to grow, improve, and share our lives with loved ones, family, friends, and endeavors that bring us joy -- that's what gives meaning. Recognize and cultivate our spiritual nature; develop our inner creativity; and share love with those around us -- those are what gives purpose, and we're ALL capable of being adequate of those.

    It's important to pay da' bills, and having a nice place to call home is a tremendous blessing, but don't burn yourself out on an endless quest for the shiny.

    I do support your thoughts, although I gotta tell ya: "Pushing yourself" to find joy is kinda like clenching your teeth and fists in order to find calmness: "Relax NOW, Damnit!!!!!!!"

    But fear not, my friend. And I second Suze on the ice cream.

    Oh -- And thanks for the asterisk! I gave an immediate "say wha?!?!?" when reading that little tidbit... ;^)

    1. Yup, that's exactly it. There's always something more to achieve ("an endless quest for the shiny" - heh), but if I'm not paying attention as I'm getting there, I'm missing out on... my LIFE. Sheesh.

      I guess I'm not so much saying that I want to grit my teeth and "push myself" to find joy. More that I want to take some of this energy that I'm spending on all this stuff that doesn't actually matter, and turn it toward what makes me happy. Or at this point, to be more precise, to turn it toward even figuring out what makes me happy. Because I know what I'm *supposed* to do, all the milestones I'm *supposed* to hit, but I haven't spent all that much time figuring out what I want my life to look like apart from those. Expectations are hard to shake.

      And okay, I hear you: ice cream social, my place. :)

  3. Family, friends, and health. Yes. Plus some good ol' spirituality to tie them all together, and a dollop of ice cream on top. :-)

    About the success stuff, I just read a piece in a health newsletter that said those with the most wealth are often those most dissatisfied. My theory is that they've put so much of their value and satisfaction into things and appearances that once they're there, they don't have anywhere else to go but to try to get more.

    A lawyer couple from out of state were visiting and I showed them how if I held my hand out the window with some sunflower seeds, chickadees would eat out of my hand. I asked what kind of birds they had at their place, and they said they didn't have time to notice. I can't afford all the things in their lives, but in that moment I felt richer.

    I wish you new routes to happiness, in whatever form you find it. And don't worry about blogging more often - I enjoy these unexpected delights, like discovering a doe in the yard.

  4. Whew. This is a subject that is very dear to me. While not a Type-A personality, I dedicated all of my youth and young adulthood towards my career, one that took all of my heart, energy and time. While I was starting to have success, I realized that I didn't have anything resembling a life. My work meant that I travelled so much that I couldn't keep up with friendships and was not available for meeting a companion. Life had a sneaky plan in mind for me and I made a choice then a radical change. In the meantime, I watched a beloved family member, one who had dedicated his whole life to success, be swallowed up with the realization that his jar was only full of sand. The sand won too, terribly. He forgot the rocks entirely.

    In my "new life" I was given an incredible gift--the opportunity to travel to some of the world's more reclusive areas. I met tribes that have kept their traditions tight, often by choice. And their ideas of success were far, far different than ours. Perhaps that isn't a valid comparison but I try to remember it when I feel fear trying to take the wheel. Oddly, my life now has zoomed to another axis, one where I have, perhaps, too much time, if such a thing is possible. For after so many days of finding a special ice cream, it doesn't really taste as sweet...So thank you for giving me something to think about! Sorry for the long response but as I said, this is a topic that is close to home!

    Best Wishes for a wonderful weekend and a Happy Thanksgiving,

  5. We spend too much time driving ourselves to insanity that we forget there are multiple flavors of ice cream to taste. This post inspired me to jump out of my comfort zone and ride the wave to truly expressing things. No one should remember how busy and stressed they are, they should only remember how they got there! From having too much fun!

    Unedited has love for ya...

  6. Fear is the biggest.. i dont want to say motivator because that would make it sound like a positive... but its pushes. All the way through school and even now i have this horrible scenario in my head i can actually picture myself being homeless, living in a bag, in a box, with holes cut out for windows, with a dog named pebbles. This image has kept me doing all the little things.. i love the analogy that prof used btw... think im gonna tell it to a few people let them think im smart.