Can you leave that which is ‘essential’ and attend to that which is ‘important’?

We’ve all heard the story of the Scottish University Professor with a lecture theatre full of eager students. My version of the story has the Professor place a large glass jar on the bench at the front of the lecture theatre. He proceeds to place 6 large rocks into the jar – each about the size of a large fist. He then asks, “Is the jar full?” “Yes!” many of the students reply. The Professor reaches under the bench and produces a container full of course pebbles. He proceeds to pour the pebbles into the glass jar, stopping every now and again to shake the jar to allow the pebbles to fill the gaps between the rocks. “Is the jar full?” he asks. “Yes,” comes the reply from a smaller number of students.

Reaching under the bench the Professor produces a pitcher of fine sand. Like the pebbles he proceeds to pour the sand into the glass jar, again stopping to shake the jar and sift the fine sand down between the pebbles and rocks. Again he asks, “Is the jar full?” His question is this time met by silence. Reaching under the bench the Professor produces a pitcher of water. He then pours the water into the glass jar until it is full to the brim. His question this time in met by a full silence.

“What is the purpose of this demonstration?” the Professor asked. Several hands went up. “Professor, we can always fit in more if we try!” “There is always room for more!” “We can do or achieve more if we creatively approach a task!”

Pausing for dramatic effect the Professor shook his head. “No, the lesson from this demonstration is remarkably simple. The only way we can fit in the ROCKS is if we put them in first!”

Life is like this teachable moment. The rocks of our lives are those things that are truly important. What are the rocks in your life?

I have had several ‘encounters’ over the last week each of which has pointed to the true rocks in my life. Earlier this week I had the privilege of working with a group of Year 11 students. One of the young men was quite significantly effected by Cerebral Palsy and his speech was difficult to understand. Yet, despite this I was in awe of the profound respect and indeed admiration that his peers held him in. I began to see why. Despite being confined to a wheelchair and struggling to clearly articulate what he really wanted to say – the young man joined in everything we did – in his own beautiful and unique way. The day concluded with the students forming a circle and lighting a candle to express a word from their day or something they were grateful for. The young man wriggled around in his chair and in possibly his clearest voice of the day said,

“I want to thank each of my friends here for accepting me for who I am!”

This last week I gifted myself with five days of holiday after a very busy month. I have done little other than potter around in my garden, pruned a hedge, cut back some overhanging branches and planted some impatiens (Balsam) in a garden bed that has a lot of shade. This along with some long walks has brought back some perspective to my life.

One of the ‘rocks’ in my life is nature. I love hiking – I love gardening. You can’t rush a garden. It will surprise you with beauty and colour in the most unexpected places and times. Gardening like life must respect the seasons and it invites you constantly to awareness – and at times ‘awe’. Like life, gardening also needs its weeding, pruning, raking, tilling and churning and allowing to lay fallow. My walking / hiking and my gardening get me out into the fresh air, they bring perspective and balance and they are a choice to gift ‘Damien’ with space and the inner damien loves this.

Another of my rocks is to work with youth to see them ‘come alive’ and claim their wisdom and contribution to make ours a better world for all. I love the sparkle in the eyes of a youth who is embracing life and living it to the full. I especially love it when their lives are full of ‘natural highs’: service, adventure, pushing physical boundaries or participating in team sports, creating community, engaging their own creativity through art or music and more. I love it when they set out on the “road less travelled”!

“I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference!” Robert Frost

This ‘rock’ of working with young people is why the positive energy and passion of the young man with cerebral palsy that I referenced above really touched me. One of the key foci in my life at present is working with some friends of mine (Joe, Martin, Tracey and Tristram) on a project called ‘Beyond the Chair’ (see the UnOther website). Tracey who is an extraordinary woman was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy at age 16. She has gone on to represent Australia on the international stage through rifle shooting. One day, while filming with Martin and Joe, Tracey casually remarked, “I wish people would see ‘beyond the chair’ to the person!” Since then, the UnOther team have been putting youth into sports wheelchairs to experience wheelchair basketball and day chairs to experience life on city streets for people with a physical disability, inviting them to hear the stories of extraordinary mentors and reflect on their experience. The goal is simple: break down the ‘other’ label which so often divides us through shared story and experience and by so doing – Un – Other them.

Our lives can be so full of sand. We can ‘fill’ our lives with things purchased that we really probably do not need. We can ‘fill’ our moments with endless staring at phone screens. We can ‘fill’ our needed silences with noise. We can ‘dull’ our feelings with short term pleasure, plastic moments, falsehood and pretend. We can live shallow lives and never dive the depths of spirit or life. We can surround ourselves with things. We can become obsessed with our own health and go from one pill to the next to the next health fad to the next Instagram guru. We can spend our lives on ‘essential’ things and ignore that which is truly important.

Our ‘rocks’ are our compass points: they point to the places of energy that give us life and meaning. Some of my other ‘rocks’ are family, spirituality, prayer, story and friends. These things give my life meaning.

Everyone of us has different ‘rocks’ in our lives. No two of us are the same – thank God. But one of the challenges of the ‘rocks’ of our lives is to grow in awareness of them. Are they simply ‘sand’ disguised as a rock or ‘sand’ that the ego whispers is essential (but not truly important). Too often we can be tempted to canonise the ‘essential’ (as distinct from the truly important). Sadly many institutions drift away from the vision of their founders, the idealism is lost replaced by legalism and ‘ticking boxes’. The body beautiful can become an end in itself as distinct from the ‘rock’ of fitness! The ‘right’ language or the ‘right’ ritual or the ‘right’ number of candles sticks on the high altar can replace the dream of a carpenter who got up from table and washed the feet of his closest friends.

So what are your rocks? What in your life is truly important? I suspect I gained my “truly important” wings in the classroom of my childhood sitting at the feet of Zena and Frank my wonderful parents. By word and by example they taught me: people before things, we before me, love – always love before hate. There was a wonderful gentle man who became Pope as an old man – Pope John XXIII. He once said,

“In essential unity – but in all things love!”

We have all seen that poster, “Who on their death bed wished they spent more time at the office!” So true. When my times comes I hope I have a gentle smile on my face. I hope some youth, now grown old, drop by and share with me what they have done with their dreams. I hope my sleep is full of memories of mountain vistas and simple daisies.

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