Three of my favorite stories
Here are three of my favorites stories, simple in their telling, yet powerful in their ability to change our lives on a daily basis. They touch on three habits of mind (expectations, assumptions and judgment) that were we to dispense with them, our lives would be inexorably happier.
Story #1: “Who’s to Say?” This parable has been retold for centuries. It goes something like this:
One day, a poor farmer, tending to his fields, sees his lone horse come loose and dash off into the pasture. On learning this, a neighbor comes by and says to the farmer: “I’m so sorry for your loss.” The farmer turns to his neighbor and says, simply: “Who’s to say?” Two days pass, and suddenly, off in the distance, the farmer’s son spots their horse romping back to their farm, but not alone. Three young stallions accompany him. The neighbor returns, overjoyed with the farmer’s good fortune, for now he has four horses to help him tend the fields. Says the neighbor: “What a joyous day for you and your family!” To which the farmer again replies: “Who’s to say?” Days pass, the fields now tended at light speed, and the farmer’s son, while riding one of the young stallions, falls from the horse and breaks his leg. The exchange between neighbor and farmer is the same: a sympathetic word from the neighbor, a sincere “Who’s to say?” from the farmer. A few days later a notice arrives by mail, informing the son that, being of age, he must soon join the army and enter battle. The son cannot serve, of course, with a broken leg. The farmer thinks again: “Who’s to say?”
Over the course of a day, no less our lives, we consistently interpret events as good or bad, desirable or detrimental. But, honestly, who’s to say? For me, it’s a daily occurrence. And, more often than I might have imagined, that which I judge to be a hardship, disappointment or calamity often leads to something special, something unexpected (e.g., daily anxiety leads me into therapy and changes my outlook on life; a business sale falls through, leading me to re-evaluate my process, and re-double efforts to garner the next; a physical injury offers new ways to approach and appreciate life, and the gifts that surround us). In this topsy turvy world of ours, who’s to say?
Story #2: The Paradigm Shift This story was shared by Steve Covey in his landmark bestseller “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Though I first read it more than 20 years ago, it’s a story that I never forget.
Covey: “I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one Sunday morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly – some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene. Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed. The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing. “It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, ‘Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?’ “The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, ‘Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.’ Said Covey: “Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. ‘Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?’ Everything changed in an instant.”
As we rush about, eager to satisfy ourselves, or reach a goal, it’s easy to forget what others are experiencing. My most recent encounter: I’m in the car, running a touch late, and eager to arrive at a dinner appointment. The car in front of me is at a crawl, break lights appearing all too often. As my irritation sets in, I watch the car pull to the side. As I pass, I glance at the driver and see a woman in tears, upset beyond measure (I later find out, she’s running late to her friend’s shower, she’s been lost for more than hour). In an instant, as Covey says, my irritation vanishes. A powerful paradigm shift.
Story #3: The Camera Author Hugh Prather shared this tale, in his wonderful book “How to Love in this World and Still be Happy.”
Said Prather: “We’ve all heard the expressions ‘That’s a comforting thought’ and ‘That’s a disturbing thought.’ A neighbor once said something similar that gave me insight into one way I disturb other people. Although his work was psychiatry, his passion was new cameras of every size and make. His wife and children were very patient with him about this, and whenever he made one of his frequent purchases, they always smiled and seemed sincerely pleased for him. One day we were visiting and once again Bill brought out a new camera to show us. After admiring it and asking pertinent questions, I laughed and said, ‘How many cameras do you have now, Bill?’ He seemed subdued for a second or two, then replied, ‘That’s not a happy question.’ And indeed, as is so often true of kidding, it was not.”
We’re talking about personal preference – that is, the choices people make that, truly, have no impact on another person’s life. When you stop to think about it, why do we care how many cameras our friend owns? But we judge nonetheless – perhaps out of envy, perhaps for no good reason. It’s a powerful reminder.