Who were the organisations and people whose stance on things I admired – and how could someone like myself help them achieve more? That is the basic question I have tried to address on various occasions over the past decade. In my various musings I’ve referred to a lot of books – but have not yet really tried to give a definitive answer to this question of whose voices and messages we should be listening to.
I’m reminded of one of Tolstoy’s fables – the Three Questions about a king who wants to know the best moment for taking a decision; the best people whose advice to listen to; and “how he might know what was the most important thing to do.”
His courtiers give him conflicting views about these 3 questions as a result of which he decides to seek the advice of a wise hermit. He disguises himself in simple clothes and dismisses his bodyguards and finds the hermit, frail and weak, digging his garden with some difficulty. He states his reason for coming but then takes pity on the old man and takes over the digging. He repeats his questions but gets no answer. He’s about to leave when a wounded man staggers to the hermit’s. The man falls unconscious and the king dresses his wounds but then, tired by his exertions, falls asleep. When he awakes, the stranger is standing over him – and asks the king to forgive him. It turns out that the stranger, apparently, wronged by the king, had been planning to kill him but had been surprised and wounded by the king’s bodyguard. Now, he is so touched by the king’s kindness that he wants instead to serve him. The story continues -
The King approached the hermit, and said, "For the last time, I pray you to answer my questions, wise man.""You have already been answered!" said the hermit still crouching on his thin legs, and looking up at the King, who stood before him.
"How answered? What do you mean?" asked the King.
"Do you not see," replied the hermit. "If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug these beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards, when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business.
Remember then: there is only one time that is important -- and that is 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 anyone else.
And the most important thing to do is, to do good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!"
I’m not sure if I really accept the second of the answers – about the most important person being the one in whose company we presently find ourselves – not least because we can and do exercise some choice about the company we keep. But I have been dithering long enough in my quest – and do agree with Tolstoy that “doing good” should be a key factor in our approach to life. Of course, in this cynical age, it is easy to deride this as facile – “give me a definition!” is the cry. But I think we all know how much time we spend on trivial or reprehensible activities with base motives.
I hope to spend some of the next few days looking at the questions – trying to identify the sane voices.
It’s obvious that systems no longer work. Perhaps, however, the original question needs first to be rephrased, for example, thus -
- How can we restore faith in institutions - in people?
- How do we select the most appropriate and effective social intervention?
- How can we develop a consensus about that?