Are You a Carrot, an Egg, or a Coffee Bean?
A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were so hard for her. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed as one problem was solved, a new one arose.
Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to boil. In the first she placed carrots, in the second she placed eggs, and in the last, she placed ground coffee beans. She let them sit and boil, without saying a word.
In about twenty minutes she turned off the burners. She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl.
Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a bowl. Turning to her daughter, she asked, “Tell me what you see.”
“Carrots, eggs, and coffee,” she replied.
Her mother brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She did and noted that they were soft. The mother then asked the daughter to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, the mother asked the daughter to sip the coffee. The daughter smiled, as she tasted its rich aroma the daughter then asked, “What does it mean, mother?”
Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity: boiling water. Each reacted differently.
- The carrot went in strong, hard, and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak.
- The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its insides became hardened.
- The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water.
How the carrot, egg, and coffee bean respond to a pandemic
I read this parable a while ago but something that happened recently triggered my memory of it.
A friend of mine who is writing a song about 2020 asked a group of us in a chat group to describe our experiences of the year so far.
I responded that the pandemic had reminded me that we spend our lives avoiding discomfort and chasing pleasure. The simultaneous introduction of intense discomfort and removal of many pleasures had forced me to assess my life and introspect deeply about my place in this world. It had also reminded me that I should always be cultivating resilience instead of pursuing control. As a result of that, my world had actually become more meaningful.
Another mutual friend of ours immediately responded that she disagreed. She then proceeded to explain all the things that are wrong with the world. Was I not paying attention to the death rates, the political situation, the unemployment, and the wildfires? It seemed to me that she was actually upset that my experience had not been as bad as hers.
I was confused at first. How could someone disagree with a personal experience?
It then occurred to me then that there are people who don’t see a choice beyond merely surviving this pandemic. Some people genuinely believe that there is no possible option to thrive in any way during this crisis, even on the smallest level.
Most people around me have become the egg. Outwardly, they appear the same. Their shell is intact — they have the same job, they have a routine worked out, and they are healthy. Yet, inwardly, their fluidity and vibrancy are gone. Their joy and ability to feel moments of bliss in their everyday life had been dulled. Their water had gone from tepid to boiling hot and in the process, they had hardened on the inside.
When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Because what has hardened will never win.”― Andrei Tarkovsky
Fear and uncertainty had driven some other people to become carrots. These were people who had previously seemed to be completely on top of things. It turns out, they only appeared to be so because they controlled every aspect of their lives. They had previously sought to protect their lives from even the smallest bit of change in their routines, lifestyles, and mental models. Now they were finding control impossible. So, every new decision from how frequently to go to the supermarket, to whether they could go to the doctor’s office, to whether they should send their child to a learning pod sent them into an emotional spiral. These were people who had never developed emotional resilience.
Then there were the rare few that have become the coffee bean — where the pandemic has galvanized them to try to make the world better for those around them. They see that sadness, anxiety, and vulnerability are an avenue for real connection. More importantly, they have felt oneness with others in a way that they did not previously. They see for the first time that they cannot live individual lives and that they are part of the collective health of a community. If there are people who are suffering in the community, then the whole community is sick.
My friend, Nancy, is one such person. A professional pianist by trade, she began conducting free concerts for her neighbors in her backyard when the pandemic started.
“For the first time in the many years that I’ve been living in this neighborhood, I actually talked to my neighbors,” she said.
Her small act of creating pleasure had brought people who had never spoken to each other to come out and actually share some joy together. Today, six months later, her staunch Republican neighbor and her staunch Democrat family house sit when either of them goes on vacation — trusting each other with full access to their homes.
When I asked her how she came about the idea. She told me, “It was what I knew how to do.”
And that — is what the world needs more of right now. Find what you can do. However small, and change the world around you for the better.
Her story inspired me and I started thinking about what I could do. I loved to play and I loved fitness. What small act could I do and sustain for an extended period?
I knew that a lot of my friends had struggled to stay active during the pandemic. As a certified personal trainer, I started hosting daily morning workouts in the park that were full of play and team interaction.
Still, some friends were not fans of group fitness. So, I designed personalized quests for them. I would wander around their neighborhood taking pictures of interesting things, which they then had to go find and take pictures of too. If they found every photo, they would get a small prize. These quests had a two-fold effect of motivating them to exercise as well as to engage with their neighbors. After all, it’s best to explain why you were trying to take a picture of their garden gnomes.
In the end, these activities gave back far more than I put in. It was allowing me to feel joy in simple things again — like the morning sun and running barefoot. Taking pictures for the quests also forced me to pay attention to unique, absurd, and beautiful details I had walked past a million times without noticing.
The thing that surprised me most was how much more meaning it gave to my life daily. After all, people were relying on me to feel good.
How will you choose?
As I thought more about my friend’s question, it occurred to me that the thing that has struck out to me most about 2020 is how increasingly unpredictable things seem to keep becoming.
If we are all in a pot of water together, it feels like the temperature just keeps getting hotter.
But there is also something incredibly hopeful about this situation — the fact that we all have the ability to choose how we want to show up every day.
We don’t have to just survive, we can thrive.
In the end, giving back to the community was simpler than I had realized. You too can change the world around you by answering one question — what small thing can I do for a sustained amount of time?
So, the real question is — Are you going to be the carrot, the egg, or the coffee bean?
“When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.” — Barbara Bloom
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