When Our Lives Don’t Fit the Pretty Analogies

I imagine you’re heard the rock and sand analogy too? It’s the story we hear from self-help books and spiritual retreats about ordering our lives and prioritizing what’s really important. And the way it goes is this: a woman is handed five or six stone boulders and a pile of sand.

Photo: Ted Scodras, Creative Commons, cc license

The rocks represent important pieces or roles in her life: her marriage, kids, spirituality, sense of community, and the list goes on. The sand is everything else that trickles in to take up a day: laundry, dishes, meals, soccer-trips, grocery-runs, etc. Pouring the sand into a glass bowl first, she puzzles and struggles to slide all five or six prioritized life boulders in so they’ll fit into her already very-full life. Half-full of sand, the boulders cannot all fit into the bowl.

Then, in a flipped upside order, the solution is displayed for us to see. Dumping out the failed attempts, the bowl starts empty, clean. Placing in first the prioritized boulders, a woman’s life is ordered, it would seem. All rocks nestle neatly in the bottom of the bowl, awaiting the sand that is to sift in, sloshing into hollow crevices and holes, around the important rock roles.

I’ve used this analogy and explained this, but it’s falling short for me today. The truth is, our boulders are big and take up a lot of space some days. Is anyone else feeling that way? The older my kids get, the larger their boulders seem some nights. Forming a tenth-grade daughter, raising a college-age man, and introducing a kindergartener to letters and phonics seem more than a day’s worth of boulders and it wakes me up some nights, when insomnia tiptoes in. My building-a-marriage rock is special and vital to me too, and it swells to fill the whole bowl some days.

A six year old Spiderman-masked-boy dances and sings beside me as I type, his boulder knocking and tumbling against my glass bowl, knocking out others, spitting sand to the side.

I’m figuring something out, friends, about the bowl and the rocks and the flying-out sand… I don’t think our lives can be boiled down perfectly to fit into these glass bowls. I’m learning to take turns juggling each boulder, focusing time on each aspect of my life that has deep value.

Yes, the sand still fits, and yes, it comes in last. But those boulders? I’m still not fitting them all in smoothly each day to my satisfaction. Instead, I’m pausing and giving each its moment in my hand.

A red-bandit six-year old runs in to ask for help reaching his plastic silver sword high above the kitchen cupboards. Pushing the keyboard aside, I stretch for his sword, and then stare full into his brown eyes. We smile, talk, and I know his rock needs more time. Soon.

Yesterday afternoon, my husband and I disappeared into our room. Locking the doors, we pulled the curtains, turned on the fan, and snuggled in for time together. For a lazy hour or two, it was just him and me. Time trailed and twisted timid toe shyly as we ignored the world and turned inward for a while.

My daughter and I worked on her Biology and World Geography homework together this morning as sunshine spilled into the kitchen and I sipped hot coffee before work. We planned a future shopping date while adjusting microscope lenses, and the time passed too quickly.

How do we order our days and weeks, pouring the necessary time and energy into our kids’ lives, into our marriages, and into the things that really matter to us? How do we live without regrets in a week that is frantic and paced?

 My boulders? Your boulders? They may not fit easily into glass bowl analogies or into daily check-lists, but — with intentionality and God’s help– we can keep them central in the busyness of life.

They may just not all be in the bowl at the same time, and that’s okay.

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  1. Brandee Shafer on October 21, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    I feel like I do well(ish) with the rocks but very often have sand all over my floor. I'm apt to completely ignore the little things until my house looks like a hurricane's passed through…

  2. Lisa notes... on October 21, 2014 at 11:15 pm

    That's a good way to look at it, Jennifer. We don't have to deal with every boulder at the same time. They can each wait their turn. 🙂

  3. Jennifer Dougan on October 22, 2014 at 12:07 am


    Grinning with you at the sand all over the floor comment. Yes, me too, literally and figuratively some times. 🙂

    This is a special season though, huh?

    Jennifer Dougan

  4. Jennifer Dougan on October 22, 2014 at 12:10 am

    Lisa Notes,

    To each one his turn, yes, that works with us most days, with God's help and intentionality.

    I love that God always has time for us too.

    Jennifer Dougan

  5. Floyd on October 22, 2014 at 1:37 am

    That's wisdom, sister. Sometimes we just have to rely on our Father to do the heavy lifting and arranging. Love how you always take time to live while most of the world is existing. And thanks for the reminder for me that I need to take the time to spend it doing the same thing in the same way.

  6. Dolly@Soulstops on October 22, 2014 at 2:19 am

    So much wisdom here – love how you turned that analogy on its head…yes, we follow God's lead for each day and each moment…and I'm glad you and your hubby took some time together 🙂 Blessings to you 🙂

  7. Brian Miller on October 22, 2014 at 3:25 am

    all analogies break down at some point…that is for sure…if life could be figured out in cute fun would that be…i like you plan of giving focused time to particular boulders…because some dont need just a touch nut that focused time…

  8. TC Avey on October 22, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    I'm a planner. I like organization and am slow to embrace change. But God is helping me let go and learn to rest in Him. I can't be "resting" in Him if I'm still trying to figure things out.
    The older and more chaotic my life gets the more beauty I'm learning to experience in the messes of life. My sand and boulders don't always look good or fit into a bowel, but I'm learning to have fun playing in the mess.

  9. Unknown on October 23, 2014 at 1:53 am

    My problem is the days when EVERYTHING feels like a boulder. Learning to 'choose the better part' seems to be my theme lately. Thanks for this.

  10. Jayne on October 24, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    Getting everything to fit in can be difficult, even on the best of days. I've done a similar post on my blog. Hope you don't mind if I share the link.

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