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  • Paul Rutherford

PRIORITIES


I don’t know the origin of this story; there are several variations out in the digital ether. Sometimes the moral is spelt out explicitly; I prefer a looser interpretation.

The professor stood at the front of the lecture theatre behind a large workbench. On it stood a large glass specimen jar, the sort that collectors of the macabre use to exhibit animals with too many limbs.

It was the start of term, so he was playing to a full house.

From beneath the table he lifted a bucket containing several rocks, each a little larger than a pineapple. With considerable care, he placed them into the jar, arranging and rearranging to make maximum use of it capacity.

When he'd finished, he replaced the bucket under the table and looked up at the class.

"So I want you to answer a simple question: Is the jar full?"

There was swift affirmation from around the room.

From beneath the table the professor lifted another bucket, this one containing stones. He picked one up, weighed it in his palm for a moment, then dropped it into the jar.

The stone rattled itself between the rocks until it reached the bottom. He repeated this several times, with one, two or three stones at a time, occasionally shaking the jar when a new addition became wedged.

With the final stone sitting on top of the pile, he looked at the class again. "Is the jar full?"

This time the 'yes' was more tentative.

Another bucket, this one full of smooth pebbles. Using a plastic cup, he scooped the beach-shingle into the jar.

He repeated the demonstration with sand, pouring it like an ingredient in a cake. Again he asked 'Is it full?', but this time the class sat in silence.

Finally he produced several large jugs of water, as if to complete the recipe. One, two, three, four jugs went in, then he reached beneath the table and produced more.

Jug after jug: Eventually, the only thing keeping the liquid in the jar was surface tension. Fourteen jugs in total. He looked around the class at a sea of furrowed brows.

"That ends the first lecture of this series. We shall discuss this further next week."

A hand was slowly raised, three rows from the front. Its owner asked:

"Are you going to tell us what that all means?"

The professor paused for a moment.

"It can mean whatever you want it to mean. That is the nature of our lives - we project meaning onto the events that surround us. We are meaning-making beings

"Perhaps the only thing we can agree on is what we observe. And what I observed was that the rocks went in first."

Coachaiku: 17-syllable reflections, in a 5-7-5 form, for personal and professional development.

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