This cup is already broken

This was my favorite mug.


A long time ago I worked in a museum’s gift shop. We sold works of local artists and for several weeks featured a talented potter. I was taken with this fellow’s work for its bold color, especially four coffee mugs in this motif. I wanted them all, but could afford only one, and chose this one.

This mug was as much a pleasure to use as it was to behold. Its slender angled lip felt good on my lips. The thumbprint-sized indentation pressed into the top of the handle made it very comfortable to hold.

I’ve had very few possessions that satisfied me as much as this mug. I drank my coffee from it for 21 years, first at college, then in my first apartment, then at home after I was married, and finally at work. But sadly it was damaged when I moved it to my last job. Something must have struck the box it was in. When I filled it with coffee, a puddle quickly formed wherever I set it.

Buddhists have a saying: This cup is already broken. It’s meant to teach us that nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it. (The book of Ecclesiastes agrees, by the way, if you aren’t too keen on Buddhist teachings.) Enjoying what I have has been a recurring theme on this blog. For example, I’ve written before about how I was so focused on taking care of my first brand new car that it robbed me of some of the pleasure of driving it. I have struggled with this lesson all my life.

I grew up in a working-class family. We weren’t poor, but we earned every thing we owned, and little was handed to me. I saved to buy things I wanted, such as my bicycle and my first old cameras. Every purchase was dear because my money didn’t stretch very far. I was always very upset when something broke or wore out, because I would have to save for a long time to replace it. This shaped my attitude toward my possessions. I have tended to buy used or inexpensive things, because when they broke or wore out I could soothe myself by saying that I hadn’t lost much. When I have received especially nice or new things, I have tended not to want to use them.

After my grandfather died, I got his pocket knife. It was a gentleman’s knife, two small blades in a slender silver body. I left it in a dresser drawer for years, afraid to carry it lest I lose it. But I couldn’t very well enjoy my grandfather’s memory that way, and so one morning I finally slipped it into my pocket. When I got home that night, I found that it had fallen out somewhere along the way, and I never saw it again.

That loss stung. In its wake I clenched even tighter on my possessions. That brings me to this mug. Because at about this time I realized I drank far more coffee at work than at home. I wanted to take my mug to the office, but I resisted out of worry that it would more readily be lost, damaged, or stolen there.

About 15 years ago I needed to sell almost everything I owned. That was super hard. Yet after it was all gone and I carried on with my life, I was surprised by how little of it I missed. Today, I occasionally wish for a couple old cameras I especially enjoyed and a few of my old record albums that have never been released on CD. That’s it. I can’t even remember some of the things I owned. It was, I am stunned to have learned, just stuff.

That my mug survived was merely an oversight, but one I was glad to have made. As soon as I came across it, I took it right to work where I could enjoy it best. And sure enough, that’s where my mug met its demise. But I got to use it for seven years at work before that happened – and in that time, I figure I drank at least 3,600 cups of coffee from it. I enjoyed it to the hilt!

And so I’ve been thinking about how to extend this idea. How will I behave differently if I think as though my kids are already grown and gone? As though I’ve already moved on from my current job? As though I’ve already remarried and left my single life behind?

What else can you think of?

Originally published in May of 2010. Back by popular demand. And since I wrote this, I’m almost empty nested, I’ve moved on from two jobs, and I’ve remarried. This long-ago reflection absolutely helped me enjoy my fleeting, temporary life more.

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14 responses to “This cup is already broken”

  1. DougD Avatar

    I seem to recall liking this post previously, and I still like it. I have the “child of penniless immigrants” mentality where I am compelled to buy something for functionality and value, maintain it, and keep it for as long as possible. (possibly too long)

    Which makes me do things like save lumber scraps, or car parts for cars I no longer have. Being aware of it helps, I try to reasses and clean regularly. In the last two years I’ve gotten tired of being surrounded by older needy vehicles so we have replaced two and got rid of a third. Maybe one more to go.

    I’ve long known there’s no point in beating yourself up for character traits you came by honestly. Just try to be a little self aware and we’ll be OK. :)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Selling/giving away most of my stuff in 2003-4 really changed everything for me, in a big way. I don’t keep things anymore like I used to. It helps a lot that I can afford to rebuy anything I got rid of that I wind up actually needing.

  2. Dan James Avatar

    There are pros and cons to this kind of outlook (which I share in some ways).

    On the plus side, you tend to look after stuff better, so it lasts longer and you spend less. Perhaps you buy better quality in the first place because you know it will last longer, and can’t bear throwing away another cheap crappy item.

    On the down side, this can lead to hoarding and holding on to stuff long after its usefulness to you (or indeed to anyone) has passed. Maybe sometimes holding on to an object with attached memories and emotions prevents you moving on emotionally when you need to.

    It is certainly a fascinating subject, how each of us treat and see our “stuff”…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I used to keep everything because of emotional ties. Having to get rid of most of my stuff in 2003-4 radically broke me of that. It was incredibly freeing.

  3. brandib1977 Avatar

    Thanks for sharing this again. It’s well timed for me as my head has been in an odd place lately – relating to both possessions and to relationships. I needed to read this as it has given me more to think about. Have a great day!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m happy this gave you something to think about today!

  4. Nancy Livesay Stewart Avatar
    Nancy Livesay Stewart

    Back on the farm that I grew up on , the barn had old buckets full of various sizes of old bent and rusty nails, screws and bolts. There were piles of old petrified boards, rolls of old rusty wire, and tools that had seen their better days. When I asked my dad why he didn’t get rid of those things, he would reply “you never know when you might need them.” My mom made some of my dresses out of the printed flour sacks when I was little. I think it came from living through the hard times of the depression. “Use it all, wear it out, make it do or do without .”

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My grandfather, who came of age during the Depression, kept everything too. His workshop was full of little baby-food jars filled with used screws and nails; his workshop full of scrap lumber. He seemed to have a mental catalog of it all and knew right where to find stuff when he needed it for a project.

  5. Peggy Avatar

    I have moved from country to country and the first couple of times I tried to ship everything. Then on one move the boxes didn’t arrive for months. By the time they finally did arrive I realised I didn’t need any of it. A wasted expense. So from then on when I moved country I sold or gave away everything I couldn’t fit in a suitcase. It was always hard to start but cathartic in the end.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I had much the same experience in 2003-4 with my stuff. Wow, it’s just stuff.

  6. bettyinparis Avatar

    Jim, this hit a chord with me too. I’ve been trying to start unloading. At this point 60 is in my sites ( although still some time off) and realizing how I will not need all this stuff that I’ve accumulated has finally sunk in. It’s hard but liberating as I let it go. Wish I had done it sooner. My parents died when I was in my early 30’s and too many of their things stayed with me as some twisted way to hang onto them, those things are the most difficult to let go. Of course the best of that was the group of cameras which belonged to my Dad that I am still shooting with…so some things get to stay. Thanks for reposting this!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It sinks in on all of us at some point, I think. For my wife’s parents, it didn’t sink in until they needed urgently to move into assisted living, which was too late for them to really do anything about it. Sounds like you’re about to avoid that mistake!

  7. davidvanilla Avatar

    Is empathy feeling what another feels? I, too, came by whatever possessions I had the hard way and clutching became a standard for living. I’m in my mid-eighties now, and it has taken me a long time to grasp the ephemeral nature of stuff. Only the life we live and the actions we take have any lasting merit– and the physical aspect of that will be gone soon enough. Blessings, Jim.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      We are but a shadow passing over this earth. So no sense leaving a bunch of stuff behind for our kids to just throw away!

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