Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 19, 2004
On the side of the jar, he then laid out about a dozen fist-sized rocks, and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top, and no more rocks could fit inside, he asked the class, “Is this jar full?”
“Yeah, sure,” most of the voices in the class responded.
“Really?” the teacher asked, and he reached under the desk and pulled out a bag of gravel. He dumped about half of it into the jar, and shook it, causing the gravel to make its way down into the jar, between the larger rocks. Then he dumped in some more. Again, he asked the question, “Is the jar full?”
“Probably not,” one voice responded. “Good!” the teacher replied, “you’re learning.”
Then the teacher reached under the desk and picked up a bucket of fine sand. He then proceeded to dump the sand into the jar, and the class watched as it made its way into the spaces between the rocks and the gravel. “Is it full yet?” the teacher asked. “No!” the class replied as one.
Then, the teacher picked up a pitcher of water, and poured it into the mason jar, until it was filled to the very brim. “Now,” he said, “it’s full.”
He then asked the business class what the purpose of the exercise had been. “That you can always cram something else into your schedule?” or student asked.
“No,” the teacher answered, “that’s not it.” When the class seemed stumped, he explained the moral of the story to them: “You see,” he said, “this illustration teaches us that if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all. Suppose I had filled the jar with gravel right off the bat, or with sand. Would have been room then for the big rocks? Of course not. You might have tried to stuff them in, but they wouldn’t fit. And if you tired too hard, the jar might even shatter and break. Put your big rocks in first!”
So often, though, we fill the fragile jars of our lives with all the gravel and sand first— all of the have-to-do’s, ought-to-do’s, and damn dailies of life-- so there doesn’t seem to be much room for our “big rocks”. We fill our lives with distractions, or with all the dull necessities of life. Those are really the sand and gravel of our existence; they are part of life, certainly; there’s no escaping them. But they’re not the “big rocks”; they’re not what our lives should be based around.
Put your big rocks in first! What are your “big rocks”? What do you want to be remembered for in life? What things give your life a sense of meaning and purpose? What things inspire you, and give you real deep down inside soul-joy, and light your days and fire your nights? Faith maybe; that could be a big rock. Family, certainly. Civic involvement. Your lifelong journey toward personal and spiritual growth— that’s another big rock, perhaps.
Your list might be a little different than mine; but try to discern what the fundamental aspects of your life are—and find the time for them first. Schedule your days around them; give them priority of place in your date book.
And choose wisely. Let go of some things, if you need to. Don’t just go on cramming more and more good-sized rocks into the glass jar of your lives. Because you know what’s going to happen if you try to put too many in: the bottom might fall out. Or the jar might crack. Or, it might even shatter into hundreds of little pieces; mere shards where once there was a jar; mere hours and minutes where once there were precious moments; a mere walking shadow where once there was a life.
About five years ago or so, not long before he was diagnosed with the lung cancer that would kill him, we had our hippy friend from Maine, Ben, to dinner, along with his wife Cheryl. They were passing through the area on their way to New York, so stopped by and spent the night with us. As we sat and talked around the supper table, we did what people always do when they get together these days: We took turns complaining about how busy we were, and about how there’s so little time anymore to visit with friends, and just stop and chat, and stay in touch, and strengthen those ties that bind us to one another. There seems to be so little time in these pathologically busy lives we all lead for reflection and creativity and spirituality.
As I listened to our conversation, and looked around the table, it dawned on me: Had it gone so far that even two middle-aged hippies from the woods of Maine—people who had dedicated their entire adult lives to being counter-cultural—had been sucked into the whirling, busy-busy-busy vortex of this mad culture? There are so many influences in our modern lives, tearing us away from deeper contemplation—deeper contemplation of the meaning of existence—that even those of us who take spiritual and religious matters very seriously indeed (I’m in the “God business”, for God’s sake!) are sitting there like everybody else, complaining about not having enough time for spiritual matters in our lives.
No wonder we so often emerge from a typical week of do-do-doing drained and empty and listless and wondering who the heck we really are, and how we really feel. Then it is that we “ride by night, and travel in fear, that in the darkness, we’ll just disappear,” as Springsteen wrote. Then it is that we’ll relive the (all too common) tragedy that Bonnie Raitt sings about of the man who goes to work all day and comes home in the evening with nothin’ to say. “Just give me something that I can hold on to,” she sings. “To believe in this living is a hard way to go.”
Time and again, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s words come back to haunt me:
“[Our lives] today,” she wrote back in 1955, “[are] tending more and more toward the state William James describes so well in the German word, Zerrissenheit - torn-to-pieces-hood."
But “[We] cannot live perpetually in Zerrissenheit, “Lindbergh warns. If we do, we “will be shattered into a thousand pieces.”
The self is the gateway to the soul, and maintaining the integrity of each of our individual selves is a fundamental calling in life. To be a human being, one first has to be. Without that sense of an integrated, integral ego (and ego, in Latin, means, simply, “I am.” It doesn’t mean “I’m the greatest!” or “I’m the center of the universe.” or “I’m better than you.” It simply means “I am.”) there can be no journey toward wholeness and personal and spiritual growth, no communion with the Spirit, no pathway to God. Obviously, there is no such thing as wholeness if your being is shattered into a thousand bits and pieces. Or, if the fibers of the garment of your life are stretched and pulled so hideously out of shape, in so many different directions, by so many conflicting influences and demands, then no one will ever be able to recognize the original blessed self that once existed.
Without the opportunity to celebrate and cherish and appreciate this life—with its laughter and its tears and its joys and tragedies and stories to tell one another when we get home from work and letters from the past to reread and cherish over and over again—without this magnificent interdependent web of life, and our profound sense of our unique place in it—there are no building blocks from which we can build a genuine spiritual life; no gossamer threads with which to weave our connection with all that is divine.
One of my favorite meditations (by the Benedictine Brothers at the Weston Priory in Vermont, I believe) begins:
There is an energy within us which makes things happen
when the paths of other persons touch ours…
But we have to be there to let it happen.
“We have to be there to let it happen.” Truly to be a human being one first has to be. To be there; to be here; to be present; to be. Not running off constantly from one thing to the next. Not dividing our time into tiny bits and pieces, never quite attentive to the matter (seemingly) before us. One has to be there—and be present—for the strands of our lives to connect with others along the web of life, and for us not merely to be ships that pass in the night along the way of this human voyage. Otherwise, the web is frayed, disjointed, severed, and even stands in danger of disintegration: in danger of being torn-to-pieces by the next (inevitable) gusting of life’s winds.
What, then, are we to do? Is there any hope for us and this frenetic culture in which we live?
Ann Morrow Lindbergh is a truly wise women, who does not merely leave us bereft. Rather, she points toward a way of curing ourselves of the disease of Zerrissenheit.
We must, she says, “consciously encourage those pursuits which oppose the centrifugal forces of today.” We cannot continue simply to “go along” with the spiritual sickness of our times and expect to be healed. Ann Morrow Lindbergh wouldn’t use the term, but she is, in fact, calling upon each of us to become counter-cultural; she is inviting us all to become part of a spiritual revolution in which we claim back our time, and claim back our own responsibility for how we structure our lives. She’s reminding us to put the big rocks in first— and to begin our journey—to begin our revolution—not by launching a grand crusade—but by going within. The cure for Zerrissenheit begins, very simply, with solitude.
This is a crazy idea in a culture which undervalues all manner of spiritual things, but none more than “wanting to be alone”. Lindbergh herself points this out: “The world today does not understand, in either man or woman, the need to be alone,” she wrote. “Anything else will be accepted as a better excuse. If one sets aside time for a business appointment, a trip to the hairdresser, a social engagement, or a shopping expedition, that time is accepted as inviolable. But if one says: ‘I cannot come because this is my hour to be alone,’ one is considered rude, egotistical, or strange. What a commentary on our civilization, when being alone is considered suspect, when one has to apologize for it, make excuses, hide the fact that one practices it—like a secret vice!”
Then, she sings the praises of the gift of solitude:
“Solitude, says the moon shell. Center-down, say the Quaker saints. To the possession of the self is the way inward, says Plotinus. The cell of self-knowledge is the stall in which the pilgrim must be reborn, says St. Catherine of Siena. Voices from the past. In fact, these are pursuits and virtues of the past. But done another way today because done consciously, aware, with eyes open. Not done as before, as part of the pattern of the time. Not done because everyone else is doing them; almost no one is doing them. Revolutionary, in fact, because almost every trend and pressure, every voice from the outside is against this new way of inward living.”
I invite you to become revolutionaries of the Spirit—revolutionaries of your spirits. Take time to turn within; time to be still and listen and discover the depth and wonder that lies within your own soul; time for your inner mechanisms to be reset, and your inner balance to be restored. Find time for contemplation and meditation and prayer—and put those spiritual treasures in your daily schedule first.
Is it easy to find time? Of course not. It might mean having to let go of something else. It might mean setting different priorities for how we use our time. But we are adults, all of us; and being adult means choosinghow it we will lead our lives, and how we will spend the precious gift of life we have been given. We know that certain things “have to be done”. We know, for instance, that if we don’t take time to brush our teeth, they’re all going to fall out, sooner or later. That’s how the Spirit works inside of us, too. If we can’t make at least a nominal amount of time for spiritual renewal and inspiration, then it should come as no surprise to us when we end up feeling spiritually bankrupt and empty.
When we are spiritually bankrupt and empty, we won’t have a clue as to who we really are, deep inside. Our sense of self will merely have disintegrated, and we’ll just feel all torn to pieces.
In the Hassidic tradition, there is the story of the Rabbi Zushya, who told his followers: “When I stand at the gates of heaven, they will not ask me, “Why weren’t you Moses?” They will ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Zushya?’”
Our human doing can be quite wonderful, and I, as much as any of you, know the strange comfort of a crowded appointment book, and the feeling of accomplishment of ticking items off a “things to do today” list, and the exhilaration of falling into bed exhausted after a full and productive day. I do not disparage our human ability to strive—to seek—to do—to produce-- and not to surrender to entropy or sloth or self-indulgence or laziness.
But let’s remember that we work to become and not merely to accumulate. We are primarily human be-ings, and only secondarily human do-ers.
We each have a precious song to sing. It is a song which echoes in the beating heart of creation.
To know why we are here, and to live out the promise of our birth, we need to hear that song—know its rhythm, recognize its melody, and keep in harmony with it. May we also remember:
Life is not a race.
Do take it slower
Hear the music
Before the song is over.