A Life Lesson in the Italian Language

Nov 24, 2010

I so enjoyed this clever and wise anecdote from Il Gruppo Castelvetrano in Trapani, Sicily,  that I translated  it into English to share with more readers in the holiday season. Click here for the complete Italian version.  

Jar of golf balls
La storia del barratolo

The Story of the Jar

A professor (un professore), in front of his philosophy class, without saying a word (senza dire parole), takes a big jar (barattolo), and fills it with golf balls (palle da golf). He asks the students if the jar is full (pieno).  They say “Si” (yes).

The professor then takes a box full of little glass  balls (palline di vetro) — we might call them marbles — and pours it into the jar. The little balls fill in the empty spaces between the golf balls. The professor asks the students if the jar is full, and they again say yes.

The professor takes a box of sand (una scatola di sabbia) and pours it into the jar. The sand fills all the empty spaces, and the professor again asks if the jar is full. This time the students respond with a unanimous “yes” (un si unanime).

The professor quickly adds two cups of coffee (due tazze di caffé) to the contents of the jar. They fill all the empty spaces (tutti gli spazi vuoti) in the sand. The students laugh

When the laughter (la risata)  dies down, the professor says, “I want you to understand that this jar represents life (rappresenta la vita). The golf balls are the important things (le cose importanti), like family, children, health, friends, love, the things that fill us with passion (ci appassionano). They are things that, even if we were to lose everything and only they remained, our lives would still be full (le nostre vite sarebbero ancora piene)." 

"The glass balls are the other things that are important to us (le altre cose che ci importanto), like work, home, etc. The sand is all the rest (tutto il resto)—the little things. If before everything you would put the sand in the jar, there would be no room for the little glass balls or the golf balls."

"The same thing (la stessa cosa) happens with life. If we use all our time and energy (tutto il nostro tempo ed energia) on the little things, we will never have space for the really important things."

“Pay attention (fai attenzione) to the things that are crucial for your happiness (cruciali per la tua felicità): play with your children, take time to go to dinner with your partner, practice your favorite sport or hobby. There will always be time to clean house (pulire casa), to cut weeds, to repair the little things."

"Take up first the golf balls, the things that really matter to you.  Set your priorities (stabilisci le tue priorità); the rest is only sand.”

One of the students raises his hand (alza la mano) and asks what the cups of coffee represent.  The professor smiles and says, “It is only to demonstrate that it doesn’t matter how busy our life can seem (quanto occupata possa sembrare la vostra vita).  There is always a place for a cup of coffee with a friend.”

Words and Expressions

vivere una vita piena —to live a full life

fare la vita di Michelangelo — to make the life of Michelangelo, to make a comfortable life

lasciarsi vivere — to let oneself live, to take things as they come

sapere vivere — to know how to live, to know how to get along with people 


Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. 

Click below for a stirring anthem to life in both English and Italian:

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La Passione
Mona Lisa
La Bella Lingua