The tradition of healing stories, storytelling, and growth and change through the art of stories is well documented throughout human history. Long before we therapists were using terms like ‘personal narrative’, ‘integrative experience’, or ‘Milton storytelling’, humanity was learning, teaching, and healing through the sharing of stories.
Here is one such story.
King Solomon, of Bible fame, was known for his wisdom throughout the world during his time. Some of this wisdom must have come from the power of observation, because Solomon noticed when one of the priests at court was in need of a lesson. This priest was very proud, very self-assured. He took a great amount of pride in always getting his work done. The priest was never tasked with something he was unable to make happen. The priest’s ego was a potential threat to the good he was doing, in Solomon’s mind.
Solomon observed that the priest might be more humble, and thus a better priest, if he were dealt the reality that all people eventually face: success is not always possible. To teach him a lesson, Solomon gave the priest an errand. He decided to assign him a task that the priest must fail, no matter what. Being a wise king, and not one who wanted the priest to suffer indefinitely, Solomon decided that since the job would be impossible to complete successfully, he would limit the priest to a time period of three days, lest he suffer indefinitely for no reason.
Solomon called the priest to him, and the priest bowed before the king, happy to be called into his service for a job. He beamed with pride as Solomon read him his task. The king told the priest to go into the city and find a ring that would make a happy person sad and a sad person happy. The priest was so eager to accomplish his task, so eager to achieve, that he snapped up, ran from the palace, and out into the city to find a jeweler.
The priest went to a jeweler he knew and trusted. “I need a ring that will made a happy person sad, and a sad person happy.” The jeweler was confused and couldn’t offer the priest anything he was sure would fit the bill. Angry, the priest demanded he produce it. “It’s for the king, you idiot! Find one!” But the jeweler had nothing to offer, and the priest went to the jeweler’s competitor, thinking he would teach the first jeweler a lesson by taking his business elsewhere.
At the competitor’s shop, the priest was again disappointed, despite demanding this ring for the king. The days passed, and the priest wandered from shop to shop, unable to find any ring that would do what the king had asked for. Exasperated, he asked a friend for guidance, but the friend had no advice to give.
On the morning of the third day, tired, frustrated, and feeling defeated, the priest began his trek back to the palace, with no ring to offer the king. At the gates of the palace, many peddlers were selling wares, and among them, the priest saw some jewelry. He approached the vendor in a last-ditch effort to find what the king had asked for. “Can you give me a ring that will make a happy person sad and a sad person happy?” The vendor took a long look at the priest. He saw his heavy, sad eyes, the weary look of longing on his face, and felt he must do something to lift the priest’s spirits. He told the priest, “Let me see what I can find for you.” Among his wares he found an old and dirty brass ring. He polished it to shine and took an engraver’s hammer to the inside of it, carving some words inside. The priest accepted the ring and turned it to read the inscription. His lips curved up in a smile, the sadness lifting from his face. He paid the man and rushed inside the palace.
A festival was in full swing with dancers and singers, and tables piled high with food inside the court. Solomon was happy as all his guests dined and enjoyed the entertainment of the celebration. He was so engrossed in his party that it took him a moment to see the priest approaching. Satisfied that the three days were up, and the priest seemed to look much less assured of his own success than he was when he departed, the king assumed the lesson had been learned.
The priest knelt before Solomon and offered the ring to him. Surprised, Solomon’s face fell. He took the ring, and noticing the inscription, read it to himself. The priest beamed, and Solomon glanced around his court at all the wonderful festivities, and his face became pinched, and sad.
Do you want to guess what was written inside the ring?
This too shall pass.
Whether we are happy or sad, jovial or somber, disgusted or intrigued, dancing for joy or weeping on the floor – everything is temporary. Emotions, possessions, relationships, all is temporary. That awareness of the impermanence of our situation means different things in different moments.
When we are sad – what a comfort that this sadness will pass! When we are happy – what a reminder that this must be enjoyed now, because it will eventually fade. There is unmistakable gratitude inside impermanence.
Impermanence is a wonderful thing, though. It makes it possible to enjoy good, and to endure suffering.
I was thinking about this story this past weekend as I sat on my patio. I noticed some birds circling my birdbath and decided to grab the hose and walk it out to fill the bath up. In the process I managed to spray myself in the face with the hose, the handle of which had adjusted itself to full pressure as I unwound it from its spot on the patio. I was completely soaked.
A split second of choice existed in that moment – the thought that nothing I attempt goes well, who can’t use a water hose?! – or the thought that as I pondered King Solomon’s request the universe had indeed chosen to demonstrate it on my own patio with the hose at full pressure.
The frame of mind I was in having been considering this old story impacted my reaction to be sure. I went with my second thought – what a wonderful embodiment of the lesson. My clothes will dry (in this Texas heat, it took less than 10 minutes!). I needed the lesson.
The impermanence of emotion is something that we can benefit remembering regardless of the present emotional state. We benefit from the awareness of impermanence. The way we tend the soil of our mind – our mental diet of television, books, movies, etc., heavily impacts our thoughts, and our thoughts in a given moment help us embrace an attitude that is either resourceful, or not so resourceful in a moment.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor E. Frankl, MD., from Man’s Search for Meaning