The lessons of the broken tea set

When our daughter was a little girl, she got a darling china tea set as a gift. She loved it, and cuddled the little cups and saucers and tea pot, and poured water back and forth ... and eventually broke a few of the pieces.

Years later, I asked her if she remembered the tea set (she did, fondly), and if she remembered how it felt to break the pieces (she did, with sadness), and if she thought that I should've kept it for her until she got older.

She didn't.

Instead of agreeing with me, and saying that it was somehow my "fault" that the set had not survived intact, she said something that has stuck with me for the years since I asked her about it. She said she thought it was bad to raise children in a world where nothing can break. She thought that perhaps plastic cups and dishes and a "childproofed" house was a lie. When you drop breakable things, they ought to break. How else, she wondered, are you supposed to know you have any effect on the world?

Good point.

After that conversation I pretty much got over thinking that I should've made a grief-free childhood for her or her brothers. A childhood free of loss is indeed a lie. We don't take things from our children just to teach them a lesson or hurt them on purpose for their own good. We needn't. Life will do that. And then we can teach the children how to love, and lose, and grieve, and finally come to a place of gratitude for the gifts we have had.

That was the first lesson of the broken tea set.

The second lesson has begun to take shape in my head now. This newly forming lesson is something akin to not crying over spilt milk, but it's more than a mere philosophizing about water under the bridge, milk already on the floor, or cups already sporting chips or broken handles. It's more a matter now of discovering that there are parts of life meant to be breakable and losable, and parts meant to be permanent, and I am starting to think that the losable bits are supposed to be the lessons and the teachers, showing us what is Eternal.

All children go through that really frustrating phase where they need, need, need things to be the same. They can't get in the car if the carseat is in a different spot. Or, they can't eat without the happy plate. Or ... as one of ours used to tell us, they can't sleep at night if their "cubbahs no' wight" or their "jammies no' wight." (The covers, we figured out. Just remake the bed and straighten out the sheets and blankets, and the problem is fixed. We thought the jammies thing meant that his pajamas had gotten twisted around or something, but we never did really figure it out. It just caused us trouble every night for a long time.) During this phase, a broken tea set can cause waves and paroxysms and storms of grief - or a bewildered quivering chin.

I used to think this meant that we ought to do what we can to make sure we - as children - as humans - should avoid the whole situation. Shouldn't we give our kids unbreakable plastic and non-stainable fabric and easier jammies and covers on their beds? Shouldn't we all try to make sure that we stay away from situations that could cause a sense of loss? Try to preserve what we value? ... Keep our couches covered in plastic?


That argument can't sustain itself.

Apparently, some stuff is meant to be impermanent. It can't really be used - or loved - if we keep it too safe.

But why? What is it for? That's the question beginning to creep in at the edges of my brain. I'll take it as a given that God is good, that he made everything, and that he loves us. (I realize I've lost readers on that point, but that's my premise.) So ... if that premise is true, what are the losses and the impermanence for?

Well, I'm starting to think that they serve the same purpose as annual seasons - or the seasons of life's youth and aging. The things not permanent really do teach us to love. The little tiny girl did indeed love that tea set. I love every autumn and every winter and every spring and every summer. It is possible to know a kind of fleeting bliss in a perfect cup of coffee or glass of wine or melting dark chocolate. The night out when the beloved is admiring, and the clothes seem magical, and the stars look on with their icy song of approval - that's near perfection. The gift of a perfect moment - the beauty of it can shatter us.

But it never stays.

Is it a lie?

Are the impermanent things we love a lie? A cruel joke? A cosmic taunting?

I don't think so.

I think ... or ... I am starting to think ... that the impermanence of "mere things" is a repeated lesson. It's sung to us in the ever-changing choir of the constellations and it's whispered to us in dandelions. The coming of spring and the broken tea set can teach us - if we will learn - the only lesson there is for us to learn in this life.

Just as the giver of the tea set said, "I love you, little girl," so the thousands upon thousands of little gifts that come to us in every fleeting pleasure and box of roses on Valentine's Day all say the same thing. They all say "I love you."

God does not give us grief by taking things away. He does not say attachments are a lie.

He gives us attachments because Love is the Truth. We are supposed to be learning ... I am beginning to suspect ... we are supposed to be learning to look at the gifts and see tokens of Love.

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