Be Grateful For Everything. Really?

Author’s Note

November 19, 2018

The story of the Clumsy Tea Boy has been told and retold many times under a different name - as the story of the Bengali Tea Boy. In my original post, I too referred to the boy serving tea as the Bengali Tea Boy, telling the story the same way that I’ve heard it over the years. This morning, I received an email from a reader who pointed out that the regional identity of the boy serving tea could create or perpetuate a negative stereotype. In response, I adjusted this post. From a story-telling perspective, what the person serving tea is called doesn’t matter to me. How people respond to the story, however, matters a great deal. Thanks to the reader who brought this to my attention.

skg sri mystery red cup #10.jpg

My grown son recently had a middle seat on a cross-country flight. He was seated between a family of three – dad on one side, mother on the other. With them, they had a young child who was restless and crying for much of the flight.  When I asked about his trip, he said, "Mom, I was traveling with the Clumsy Tea Boy.”

If you don’t know the story of the Clumsy Tea Boy, here’s how it goes:

Centuries ago, a great meditation teacher traveled with a tea boy who was known to be clumsy. You've probably read about, or seen, ceremonial tea services - they're serene and beautiful with a table set exquisitely. Serving and drinking tea at one of these slow, methodical, elegant ceremonies is a contemplative experience. The Clumsy Tea Boy’s tea ceremonies were anything but serene.  He broke cups, he broke saucers, he spilled tea, he was ornery, he was annoying, he was loud – his tea ceremonies were a mess. Still, the meditation teacher took the tea boy with him everywhere he went. The teacher’s hosts would say, "You have to get rid of this tea boy. We’ll help you find someone new." But the teacher refused, "No. I want him with me because he is my greatest teacher. He reminds me to be patient. He reminds me to be compassionate. And, he gives me many opportunities to practice tolerance.”

Thanksgiving’s coming and looking back over the past year it feels like Clumsy Tea Boys have taken over much of the world’s population. They've certainly taken over the news cycle. Some of our metaphorical Clumsy Tea Boys are benign as the one in this story, others less so. I could list some of the more malevolent ones here, but it’s not where I want my mind to travel this morning.

I’m writing this post in Mexico City, after spending more than a week teaching with some old friends from AtentaMente, a Mexican NGO that teaches social-emotional training techniques in schools, corporations, governmental agencies, and to the general public.  From here, I watched events unfold back home, and it’s looked pretty bleak while I’ve been away. Divisive mid-term elections and their aftermath continue to tear our country apart. Fires in my home-town of Los Angeles raged, burning to the ground the homes of friends and colleagues. In a nearby town, just an hour from our house, eleven college students were gunned down while line dancing. LINE DANCING! And the sheriff’s sergeant who responded to their call for help was then gunned down, too.

It’s tough to be hopeful in this environment, much less to be grateful for everything.

The teaching part of my trip to Mexico is through, and for the last few days Seth (my husband) and I have been on vacation in Mexico City. It’s been rainy, dark, and cold, but fun. Heading out to get coffee early this morning, I left our hotel room expecting it to look bleak outside but bright sunshine met me at the door instead. Sunshine is an excellent metaphor.

In a time that was not so dissimilar from this one politically, Martin Luther King reminded us that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

In good times and bad, all of us will have Clumsy Tea Boys in our lives, and I love this story because it suggests we reframe our reaction. Instead of getting angry, tensing up, and closing down or lashing back at them, this story encourages us to keep our sense of humor, soften, and choose to be grateful.  Yes, grateful.


Our Clumsy Tea Boys remind us to be patient. They remind us to be compassionate. They give us plenty of opportunities to practice tolerance and see first hand how “darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” How “hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”