The parable of the cracked pot, which I first came across more than a decade ago, is one of my favourites. It’s all about the flaws in perfection and the perfection in flaws, as well as a reflection on reframing our own imperfection. It recently occurred to me that revisiting the story might also be an interesting way to reframe the stigma associated with aging and dementia. I’ve re-written the parable (below) with that goal in mind.
Once upon a time, there lived a servant who fetched water every morning for her mistress. She carried it in two large clay pots that she hung on either end of a pole, which she bore across the back of her neck and shoulders.
The pots were smooth and rounded, and perfectly suited to the task of holding the clear, clean water from the river. They were identical except for the fact that one was older than the other. After the long dusty walk up from the river, the water bearer emptied the clay pots into storage vessels at her mistress’s house.
One day, the water bearer saw that the older of the two pots had developed a crack through which a little water dripped. Over time, other small cracks appeared, and more and more water leaked out as the servant made her way up the hill from the river to the house. It wasn’t long before the cracked pot was only ever half full by the time the water bearer arrived at the kitchen door.
“Throw out that old cracked pot, and get a new one,” the cook scolded the water bearer. “Soon it won’t be able to hold any water at all! It’s broken and can’t be fixed, and it’s only half as good as the other.”
The pot that remained crack free seemed to swell with pride as the cook shouted. The water bearer said nothing. She emptied the old pot’s contents into a barrel, and then placed it gently back in its rope sling, ready for the next day’s journey to the river.
The poor old pot was ashamed of her deficits — miserable that she could accomplish only half of what she used to. That night, she lay next to her clay companion who hadn’t talked to her since the cook’s harsh words that morning, and she wept because she was so much less than she had been.
“I’m no good to anyone anymore, just like the cook said,” the old pot thought as she cried, and the pain caused her cracks to crack open a little wider.
The next day when they got down to the river, the old pot plucked up every ounce of courage she had and spoke as the water bearer dipped her into the fast-flowing current.
“I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you,” she said.
“Why?” replied the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”
“I used to be perfect and appreciated, but now I’m old and cracked and worthless, just like the cook said,” the words rushed out as swiftly as the river ran. “Because of my flaws I’m a burden rather than a help. You do all of the work, and I’m no use at all.”
But the water bearer was full of compassion, and she loved the cracked pot, “Look at the beautiful flowers on the way back to the house. I think they will cheer you up,” she said.
Indeed, as the water bearer carried her up the hill, the old pot paid special attention to the flowers. She had been so preoccupied with her cracks and flaws that she had failed to notice their beauty before. She soaked in the warmth of the sun on her curves, and swayed gently as the water bearer trudged along the path. She even felt as if her cracks might be closing slightly.
But at the end of the trail, once again half of her water had leaked out, and she returned to despair.
“I’m so sorry,” she cried.
“Did you notice the flowers only grow on one side of the path?” the water bearer questioned. “I planted seeds on your side when I first noticed you had a crack. When you cracked a little more, I planted more seeds, and as I carry you up to the house you water them and the flowers they produce every morning.”
“In the afternoon, I pick the flowers for my mistress’s table. Without you being just the way you are, she wouldn’t have this beauty to grace her house, and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it as I walk down to the river and back.”
With that, the old cracked pot never felt “less than” or worthless again. Instead, she felt loved and useful. She fulfilled her destiny, and relished the journey back and forth to the river every day. She took pleasure in watering the flowers, and watching them grow. Eventually, the cracks weakened her to the point that she broke into pieces, which the water bearer buried on the side of the path so the flowers might wrap their roots around the clay for stability and strength.