Over 130 years ago, Leo Tolstoy published a short story that began with these words:
It once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid; and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.
I think that king is my spirit animal. If I just knew 1) when to do the things, 2) who to do the things with and for, and 3) which things to do, I’d have life all figured out.
Would YOU like to know these things, too? Then let me tell you the rest of the story…
Tolstoy’s king, being a wise, left-brain type, devised a clever solution: he announced he would give a great reward to the person who could answer his questions. The most educated men throughout his kingdom quickly arrived to share their wisdom.
The problem was, even though these were clearly the wisest men in the land, they all had different answers! On the first question —when to do the things– some said he should plan everything in advance, some said he must pay attention to everything all the time in order to know when to act, some said he should let his council decide all questions of timing, and others said only magicians can know the perfect timing of things!
And then there were all sorts of ideas about who the important people were — priests, council members, warriors, doctors — and LOTS of suggestions of the most important things to do — worship, research, train in warfare…
The king was frustrated — wasn’t there anyone in all the land who knew all the things?!?
So the king did what we all would do in such a situation — he took off on a journey into the woods to find a wise hermit who could answer his questions.
When he came upon the hermit, a frail man working with some difficulty in his garden, he immediately announced,
I have come to you, wise hermit, to ask you to answer three questions: How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time? Who are the people I most need, and to whom should I, therefore, pay more attention than to the rest? And, what affairs are the most important, and need my first attention?”
This being a cute fable, the hermit simply ignored him and continued his work. As the king noticed the hermit looked quite tired, he offered to take his spade and take over the digging. The hermit happily handed him his tools and rested for a while.
The king, after some time, repeated his questions, and, of course, the hermit said nothing.
And then, because this is a quirky old story, allofasudden the hermit and the king were startled by a man running out of the woods, clutching his bleeding belly and then collapsing in front of them! The king and the hermit immediately tended to the man’s significant injuries, and spent the rest of the night cleaning his wounds, changing his bandages, and offering sips of water.
In the morning, the man thanked the king profusely (and informed him, of course, that he had actually been in the woods to try to kill the king yesterday, to seek revenge, but instead had been attacked by the king’s bodyguard. He expressed his deep gratitude to the king for saving his life, though his intent the day before had been to kill him!)
The king, thankful to have made peace with his enemy, decided to head home, but sought out the hermit one last time to answer his questions.
To his surprise, the hermit told him, “You have already been answered!”
The king was shocked — the hermit had not answered him at all!
The hermit proceeded to tell him that when the king found him, the most important thing to do was to help him — for the hermit was weary, not to mention that if the king hadn’t stayed, his enemy would have caught him, and likely killed him. And when the man eventually burst forth from the woods injured, he became the most important person, and the most important thing to do was to help him — for then he never would have reconciled with his enemy.
The hermit told him,
Remember then: there is only one time that is important– Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”
So, dear reader, we have our answers:
- When is the most important time to do the things? NOW.
- Who are the most important people? The ones we’re with NOW.
- Which things are the most important? The things we’re doing NOW, to help the ones we’re with NOW.
And a whole bunch of artists and dancers agree, so the hermit clearly knew what he was talking about:
***I first heard of this delightful tale in the children’s book The Three Questions. If you have little kids you’d like to share this story with, check it out!
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