A man died, leaving his property to his two sons. As the sons were dividing things up between them, they came across a package which appeared to be carefully left for them by their father. It contained two rings. One was obviously valuable, while the other was merely bronze. The elder brother asserted his right to the valuable ring, leaving the bronze for the younger brother. This younger brother took the bronze ring and examined it. Running around the outside were the words, “This too shall pass.”
The years passed. Each brother prospered in the business he had founded on his inheritance. The elder would be elated whenever things went well, in his arrogance forgetting that fortune had graced him, and instead praising himself, viewing his good situation as a reflection of himself. The younger took pleasure in the same good fortune but held a more circumspect view, as he ran his fingers over words on the ring.
Then the economy collapsed and the two brothers lost everything. The elder fell into a deep depression, crying that he was ruined, that his life had been a waste, that there was no possible future. He even attempted suicide. On the contrary the younger brother, as he contemplated with dismay his loss and what it meant for his family and employees, continued to run his fingers over the words on the ring, “This too shall pass.” He focused on the words as he surveyed what he had lost, and this enabled him to maintain greater equilibrium. Instead of spending his time in maudlin sorrow, he focused on what he needed to do now, and prepared himself to get to work. Certainly he suffered, but he was also able to stand back and appreciate that the most important things remained: his life, his loves and friendships, and possibility. He reminded himself that what had been in the past, was always going to change, and so too would the current situation change. And in time change did occur, his fortunes shifting again, prompted partly by his focus on what mattered and needed doing.
This is a Buddhist tale which I heard years ago. It has always sat with me, especially in my own darker hours. On the surface it is a simple moral tale which expresses a mere platitude: that all things change, and your present suffering will change too. Simple tales are worth their weight in gold, however, if we stop trying to prove how clever we are, and let old-fashioned wisdom sink into us. This need not be simple-minded, for there is a great difference between simple truths and simplistic thoughts. The former can be profound. Many of the important truths about life have been powerfully expressed, somewhere at some time, in stories and folk sayings. These sayings have stood the test of time. They continue to be passed on for a reason. They speak most directly to the kinds of creatures evolution has made of us. At certain times in life the right story can be a lifebuoy, something we can cling to to keep our head above water, giving us time to realise that it might be better to sight land and begin paddling, rather than thrashing about and sinking.
Author: Matthew Bishop