I stumbled upon this parable today:
A group of alumni, highly established in their careers, got together to visit their old university professor. Conversation soon turned into complaints about stress in work and life. Offering his guests coffee, the professor went to the kitchen and returned with a large pot of coffee and an assortment of cups – porcelain, plastic, glass, crystal, some plain looking, some expensive, some exquisite – telling them to help themselves to the coffee.
When all the students had a cup of coffee in hand, the professor said: “If you noticed, all the nice looking expensive cups have been taken up, leaving behind the plain and cheap ones. While it is normal for you to want only the best for yourselves, that is the source of your problems and stress. Be assured that the cup itself adds no quality to the coffee. In most cases it is just more expensive and in some cases even hides what we drink. What all of you really wanted was coffee, not the cup, but you consciously went for the best cups… And then you began eyeing each other’s cups.
Now consider this: Life is the coffee; the jobs, money and position in society are the cups. They are just tools to hold and contain Life, and the type of cup we have does not define, nor change the quality of life we live. Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the coffee. Savor the coffee, not the cups!
The happiest people don’t have the best of everything. They just make the best of everything. Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly.”
What kind of cup are you holding your life in? How many times have you thought, “If only I had that house/made more money/got that promotion, I would be happier”? How many times have you paid to upgrade your car seats or brand of jeans or furniture, expecting that it would somehow make your life more valuable?
But if we spend all our time, money, and energy pursuing the prettiest, most expensive cup, we might fail to notice that our coffee has gotten cold and bitter. The most important aspect of having a cup of coffee–the coffee–is ruined because we were too busy focusing on the superficial trappings.
What if, by choosing a plainer cup, you were able to take more time to sit on your porch and enjoy it? What if you could share it with someone you love, instead of hastily gulping it on your way to the daily grind? What if you were able to travel around the world and try coffee in different countries? Wouldn’t that coffee be sweeter to you?
Have I done this metaphor to death yet?
Minimalism is a great tool toward a fulfilling, enjoyable life. By taking out the needless frills and focusing on the most important elements of life–companionship, education, gratitude, compassion–you open your life up to simplicity and happiness. By refusing to think of expensive cars and executive-level jobs as the most important things in life, you avoid feeling jealous, inadequate, petty, or entitled. Of course, I’m not saying you can’t have nice things–in fact, minimalism makes high-quality food, goods, and experiences more accessible. But recognizing that the brand name or price tag isn’t what makes something valuable is, in itself, a revelation.
Because minimalism isn’t the same as monk-like ascetism–we want a beautiful, full life, after all–I don’t think the moral of this story is to only aim for the cheap, plain cup. I think an alternative message is: Choose the best coffee, and leave the beautiful cup for someone else. Better yet, lend that ‘someone else’ a hand: share your coffee, fill that cup, and give it to them.
One of my favorite quotations of all time is from Miss Minimalist, who wrote: “Minimalism is knowing when you have enough, so you can do something extraordinary with the excess.” When is the last time you helped fill someone else’s cup? If it’s been a while… is it maybe because you’ve been focusing to much on what your own cup looks like?
Choose the best coffee. Fill someone else’s cup. If we do this, we will spread the kind of joy that no crystal or gold leaf can.