While it may be true that the big things matter most, the real genius of living with virtue is mastering what those things are. In the story from my last post, the teacher says that family, health, friends, and favorite passions are the large stones, the things that matter most. Isn’t that a bit prescriptive? How does he know, and what gives him the right to tell me what are the “large stones” in my life?
So, telling me that there are things that should be important to me and things that shouldn’t be important is somewhat helpful, although not very specific. On the other hand telling me what should be important to ME, is quite specific, but a bit presumptuous, no?
But isn’t it just common sense that your family would be one of those big things? Let’s look a little closer. What if you have raised your child one way, and she decides to go another? What if she provides you no respect whatsoever? As an adult, this descendant of yours has cut you off. Should I force my will upon her? Do I invite her to Thanksgiving dinner no matter what? Do I try to establish an intimate father/daughter relationship regardless of her impudence? What are the factors that led to our estrangement? Couldn’t they be a series of “little things?” What if you are a firefighter, and you are called to extinguish a blaze during your own family holiday gathering? Do you say, “Hey man, family is way more important, you are going to have to find somebody else!”?
As I think about “The Stones in a Jar” story more and more, I am starting to doubt its usefulness. This poor professor thinks there is a whole jar full of “big things” and “little things.” He thinks family, health, friends, and passions are large stones. What he has missed is that these things are actually lumped collections of “little things.” They are clumps of sand…they are the seemingly unimportant things that together make the whole of my life. To say that family, friends, health and passions are important is fair, but to call them big things might not be all that helpful advice for leading a virtuous life.
We tend to be like this as humans, we like to categorize things as big things and little things. I think it was necessary for our survival. A saber-toothed tiger about to pounce on us is a big thing. Whether to build a fire out of maple or oak, might be a much smaller thing. In any case, couldn’t you classify either in the family, friends, health or passions column? It is very hard to have any of them when you are dinner for a predator. As far as building that fire, doesn’t that provide welfare for your family/friends, and maybe provide you with the warmth and light to pursue your passion? Doesn’t building a fire keep you healthy by allowing you to cook, keeping you warm, and warding off saber-toothed tigers?
The devil is in the details, isn’t it? The fact of the matter is that the “big things” are nothing more than a collection of little things, aren’t they? In my humble opinion there are very few big things, indeed. When it comes down to it, the big things (the “large stones”) are the concepts that guide my life and my philosophy. I can think of three categories of them:
- Awareness of Control, Fate, and Impermanence
- Awareness of Suffering and its Source
- Pursuit of Virtue with Heroic Effort
As an alternative story to the “Jar of Stones” (and a much shorter one), maybe we can view things as a series of “clay projects.” I think maybe the 3 concepts above could represent the water. With this water, I can mix in the little things, the sand, and create my big things. When you have water, all you have is water. When you have sand, all you have is sand. When you artfully mix them, you can build, mold, fashion many “bigger things” with the clay you’ve formed.
…including family, friends, health, and passions.