This post has been on my mind for a long, long time. Let us start with a story. Have you heard the one about the proud king?
nce upon a time, there was a proud king who wished to show that he was more intelligent than all of his ministers, and all of his subjects. He decided that he would prove his intelligence by setting an impossible task. So one day, he called his court together, assembled all his most trusted ministers and greatest scholars, and announced his task:
“I charge any of you to come up with the answer to my challenge: bring me an inscription that is true in every moment of life; that will make the joyful man sorrowful, and the sorrowful man joyful”.
At first, the challenge caused a flurry of activity. The courtiers conspired and the ministers mulled over what the answer to the riddle might be. The oil burned long in the midnight lamps of the king’s subjects as they all raced to be the first to answer the challenge, while the king revelled in the knowledge that he was so brilliant as to have created an impossible riddle.
Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and every time a traveller appeared at court, the king issued his challenge. But as the months neared becoming a year, still no one could best the king’s riddle.
Exactly one year after the king had announced his riddle, a old traveller appeared at court. His clothes were ragged and his feet calloused from long miles of walking. He had a long beard that seemed as if it might not have been washed in months, and frail hands that grasped a carved walking stick. As he bowed down before the king, the king asked, “Do you think you can answer the riddle that I devised, that none of my court nor any of my ministers nor a single scholar nor any other traveller has solved?”. The traveller replied humbly, “I can only try, your Highness”. So the king told him the riddle: “Bring me an inscription that is true in every moment of life; that will make the joyful man sorrowful, and the sorrowful man joyful”. So the old traveller bowed down again, and left the court to ponder the riddle.
Later that evening, as the king was preparing a feast to celebrate the one-year mark of his challenge, and to revel in all his wealth and stature and intelligence, the traveller returned to court. He walked up to the king, bowed his head low, and then passed to the king a small piece of paper.
The king’s subjects and his ministers and his scholars all watched as the king unfolded the scrap of paper, and they all saw as his normal, self-satisfied smile turn first to confusion, and then to a frown. For on the little piece of paper were inscribed the words:
this too shall pass
I heard a version of this story a long, long time ago, and since then it has filtered in and out of my mind many times, but usually at moments of great pain or loss. Over the past year or so I have found myself returning to this story frequently as I struggled with certain kinds of ‘rights of passage’ that come with growing up: your body failing, the death of loved ones, the frustration of life’s foibles, the difficulty of truly closing the space between you and another human being.
Despite my initial inclination to turn to this phrase in the most darkest hours, I have come also this year to appreciate its duality: it is as true in times of joy as in times of sorrow. Although the king’s challenge suggests that the phrase will turn the joyful man sorrowful, I have come to realize the beautiful, positive joy of the phrase even when it is read in times of joy. To me, the phrase is not the comfort that pain will pass and sorrow that joy will too, but rather the comfort that pain will pass and the most powerful reminder that we must hold on and immerse ourselves as fully as we are able in times of joy…for they, too, will pass. It is a reminder that each moment of joy is as precious as it is surely fleeting. From this point of view it isn’t sorrowful, but hopeful: it encourages us to soar in those moments of joy.
Life is short, and we have only the time that we are given, nothing more. Never more. Remembering that in our brief lives each moment of joy will pass, like each moment of pain, is the story of ‘Part Two’, which I will be adding soon.