Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to break up the pattern of your day with a question that catches you off-guard, something unexpected that comes at you from out of left field. The following parable by Leo Tolstoy came at me this way years ago when I was feeling mighty potent about my place in the world from a position of privileged anticipation. (And now come to think of it, accompanied by a large dollop of fear.)
Tolstoy tells the story of a greedy man named, Pahom, who was obsessed with amassing more and more land. One day, he learned of a wonderful and unusual opportunity to get more land. For only 1,000 rubles, he could have the entire area that he could walk around in a day, but he had to make it back to the starting point by sunset, or he would lose everything that he invested.
He arose early and set out. He walked on and on thinking that he could get just a little more land if he kept straining forward for the prize he sought, but he went so far that he realized he must walk very fast if he was going to get back to the starting point and claim the land. As the sun set lower in the sky, he quickened his pace. He began to run. He came within sight of the finishing goal and exerted his last energies plunging over the finish line, falling to the ground, dead.
His servant took a spade and dug a grave. He made it just long enough and just wide enough to match Pahom’s body and buried him. Here’s the title Tolstoy gave his story: “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” He ends the short morality tale with this line: “Six feet from his head to his heels was all that man needed.” The famous novelist James Joyce wrote to his daughter that, “this was the greatest story that the literature of the world knows.”
I wouldn’t say that exactly, but I follow Joyce’s logic. The lesson has stayed with me over many years as a sober check on fickle thinking and behaving; fickle and missing the point. Today’s as good a day as any to be reminded of that.