Is it really that important?

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Books in a cardboard boxI was walking along a country lane near my home recently, mulling over all the things I had to do that day when in the distance, I saw an elderly man rummaging through his refuse bin.

As I contined to agonise over the business of life, finances, career, children and schooling—all the issues that can consume and overwhelm, my dog dashed ahead and gave her customary golden retriever greeting. There was no avoiding this encounter; the apparently important tasks would simply have to wait.

As I paid more attention to the elderly man, I could see he was looking for a lost piece of paper—clearly something he had thrown in the recycle bin in error.

He appeared to be taking his time and was still dressed in pyjamas—rumpled striped pants up to his ankles, faded dressing gown and comfortable old slippers  – long, silvery hair giving him a slightly eccentric stance.

In spite of his early morning attire, he greeted me graciously and appeared to have all the time in the world to chat. I thought how wonderful it was to reach an age where there was no longer any need to apologise for yesterday’s stubble or striped pyjamas that had clearly seen better days.

I smiled at him and we exchanged a few pleasantries and he confirmed that yes, he was looking for a discarded document.

And then he asked, “Have you got a moment to hear a story? Two stories actually – they sort of confirm why I sense finding this document isn’t going to be that important after all.”

I thought again of my busy schedule, of unwritten articles, washing to hang up, emails to answer – ‘stuff’ to do and hesitated. But he looked like a wise old man and I could certainly do with some wisdom, so I told him, “please, go ahead, I’d love to hear your story.”

He proceeded to espouse a theory.

“Many years ago, when I was a young man working for a large company, my boss told me to find a certain document he needed. I spent many hours searching the bowels of the company, trying to locate the document. It was no use, I couldn’t find it anywhere. With trepidation, I reported to my boss that unfortunately, the document was nowhere to be found.”

He continued his story, while slowly sorting through the papers in his hand.

“I was expecting my boss to be furious with me—to accuse me of being useless, but to my astonishment, he said: “Oh, don’t worry, it wasn’t that important anyway.”

And then the elderly man turned, crinkling his eyes with amusement.

“I know this document isn’t going to be important at all.”

He wasn’t finished.

“Let me tell you another story. I hope I’m not boring you?” he politely enquired.

“Absolutely not!” I answered, sensing some more pearls of wisdom.

He continued.

“I worked for another company years later, and my position was a rather busy one, so much so that I never had time to get around to the pesky tasks I kept in a box on my desk.

“I always intended completing the tasks in the box, but never seemed to find an opportunity to do so.

“I eventually left the company but was always worried about the box and the fact that I hadn’t completed the tasks that it contained. Through a series of circumstances, I returned to work at the same company two years later—and there was my box, still there, work still undone. The company had continued to tick over, nothing had ground to a halt. And my box remained untouched.”

I smiled, realising that sometimes, wisdom comes from the most unlikely sources.

I thanked him for his wise words and wished  him well with his search.

“I know this isn’t going to be important, even if I do find it,” he chuckled again.

“And don’t forget the box!” he called after me.

“I won’t!” I replied.

I continued on my way,  reflecting on what the old man had said. I slowed my pace and enjoyed the sweetness of the spring morning, took in the birds that chirped and even allowed my pooch to chase after a brush turkey. I consciously enjoyed the moment rather than hurrying to the next thing on my list.

The old man was so right, I mused.  The things in the box we agonise over, hold onto and give far too much attention than they deserve, are often things out of our control or, as the elderly man explained, not worth fretting over at all.

© Lois Nicholls 2009

Filed under: Columns


Lois Nicholls is an Australian freelance journalist. She is also the author of "Aussie, Actually," which captures her heartfelt experiences as a South African migrant living in Australia. Her second book, "Bye-bye Bikini", published in August 2018, is a series of frank and humorous essays navigating everyday life from the perspective of a fifty-something former newspaper and magazine journalist. Her first children's book, "What Dog is That?" available in hardcopy from was published in May 2019. Her books on Amazon: