the parable of rock and gravel and sand

I like the parable of rock and gravel and sand.   Briefly, imagine that one’s life is a jar.  The rocks represent the things that are most important.  The gravel, intermediate sized, represent the things of intermediate importance.  And the sand represents all the unimportant grit that fills ones time.  If we start by filling our jar with the unimportant sand, then there is little room for the intermediate gravel and no room for the important rocks.

If on the other hand we start with the important rocks, then we can fit intermediate gravel around the important rocks, and there is still a lot of room for the unimportant sand. 

We can then spend a pleasant evening reflecting on the things in our life that are rocks, the things that are gravel and the things that make up the sand.  This is not a parable original to me.  I don’t remember when or where I first heard it but it’s been with me for a long time.   But I’ve never been entirely satisfied with the parable as it stands, because I think it’s missing something.  As I’ve told it above, this parable is static.

One facet of this missing something is our process of deciding what is rock and what is gravel and what is sand.  One approach is to decide what is most important and make that the rocks, what is least important and make that the sand, and then the gravel is the intermediate stuff that remains.  But I think there is a more honest approach.  This more honest approach is to first conduct a time audit and see how we spend our time.  The things on which we spend the most time, these are the rocks.  The things on which we spend an intermediate amount of time, this is the gravel.  And the sand is the remainder, the small things that fill up the time between all the other things.

Conducting such an audit is an interesting experience, because what we think are the rocks, are not always where we’re spending the bulk of our time.  And this led me to the next point.  Suppose I examine my life and I decide that I’m not happy with my current balance of rock and gravel and sand.  How do I change?  How do I convert gravel to rock and rock to sand, et cetera.

For me, this is the most difficult aspect of this whole parable, this process of change.   Making this parable dynamic rather than static.   And I’m not sure about the whole of the road to making this change.  I know that a first step is to be mindful.  I have been paying more attention to how I spend my time, though the process of converting gravel to rock is as hard as I thought it would be.  And the difficulty is habit.

Habit has an inertia that makes changing its direction difficult.  And habit has a memory of its former life, and it likes to return to its old ways.  So when we try and reshape the jar that is our life, empty out the current mix of rock and gravel and sand, some of that gravel and sand will somehow find its way back in the jar before we have the opportunity to fit in the rocks that we wish to be rocks.   And so there is some learning still to do.

~ by Jim Anderson on 5 February 2017.

3 Responses to “the parable of rock and gravel and sand”

  1. I’m not sure about this metaphor for life on many grounds.
    1. Putting the rocks in first is a bad plan. When you work out what you want these rocks have already determined the shape and mix of your jar and getting them out and replacing is messy….they can become obstacles instead.
    2. The sand may seem unimportant but it is the context and environment that shape the meaning of bigger things. Sand is never trivial but of course it can slip through your fingers and appear so.
    3. The middle size stones are those things I’m working on and I’m excited about. They may group together and appear more unified but they come from patience and joy of working with them.
    4. The jar itself mat lend itself to a particular distribution of matter . Should we judge someone badly with a rather sandy jar with a few pebble’s or admire someone’s jar with those big rocks?

    For me it’s all to do with harmony of the jar, and what I feel about those bits in it. Thanks Jim for sharing that. Pat

  2. […] I first wrote about the parable of rock and gravel and sand in a previous post, I’ve continued to ponder on aspects of the parable and I’ve also […]

  3. […] are other sides to this reflection, beyond the day job. There is the old parable of rock and gravel and sand. And it’s again time to undertake the audit, to empty the jar as it were and to examine my […]

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