The Three Questions
The following was adapted from a short story written by Leo Tolstoy
Back in the day, there lived an emperor who searched for a philosophy of life. He realized he needed wisdom to guide him and how he ruled. None of the religions and philosophies of the time satisfied him, so he searched for a philosophy that was rooted in the experience of life.
After much reflection he came to the realization that he required answers to only three basic questions. With the answers to those three questions, he concluded, he would have all the guidance he needed. The three questions were as follows:
- When is the most important time?
- Who is the most important person?
- What is the most important thing to do?
His quest led to a long search which takes up most of the original story, but eventually he finds the three answers when he encounters a hermit. What do you think the answers are? Look at the questions again, and pause before you read on…
We all know the answer to the first question, but it’s so obvious that oftentimes we forget it. The most important time is now, of course. It’s the only time we have. Even in love, the only time we have is now. Love in the past is but a memory and love in the future is a mere fantasy. We can only love in the now. Why is this important, or what relevance does this have? Well, for one, if you want to tell a loved one how much you really love them, you should do it now. Not tomorrow. Not in five minutes. Now. Five minutes may be too late. If you need to make amends, don’t start thinking about all the reasons why you shouldn’t, or dwell on self-righteousness, or concoct reasons why you shouldn’t. Just do it now. The opportunity may not come again and you’ll be whining about how you didn’t seize the moment when you had the chance.
The answer to the second question is a little harder and profound. Very few people get this one right. When I first read the answer, it blew me away. The answer rips through the question in a way I never before understood or imagined. The answer is that the most important person is the one you’re with.
My work involves listening to people deeply. It entails me being present in a way that’s sometimes exhausting because I’m listening on levels hardly ever utilized. In order for me to be able to listen in this manner, I have to have complete unconditional regard for the person. Listening, believe it or not, is a powerful healing mechanism. Have you ever been with someone who gave you their total attention? Do you remember how that feels?
Communication and love can only be shared with the person you are with, no matter who they are. The person you are with is the most important person in the world. People can feel that kind of attention. They respond.
A common complaint among married couples is that they feel their partner doesn’t really listen to them. In a way, what that means is that they feel that their partner doesn’t make them feel valued anymore. If people actually were more present with their loved ones, divorce lawyers would become a dying breed. I should add that, for a substantial part of your life, you are by yourself. Then, the most important person, the one you are with, is you!
The answer to the emperor’s last question, “What is the most important thing to do?” is care. To care means bringing together being careful and caring. What does it mean to care?
Well, for me to care means compassion. If compassion can be represented by a dove (as it often is), then the wings of the dove are wisdom. Without wisdom compassion cannot soar. I always find it funny that in the Buddhist tradition, they differentiate between compassion and stupid compassion. To illustrate, I’ll share another story I heard at a retreat once. A woman had spent three months a loving-kindness retreat. Metta, a form of loving-kindness mediation intended to opening the heart, is very intense and liberating. Well shortly after leaving the retreat, this woman was attacked by a man in a dark alleyway. Luckily, her screams were heard by passerby who came to her rescue.
The incident really shook her and she wondered about all that loving-kindness practice. She went to her teacher and related the incident to her, hoping to get some guidance. Her teacher asked her, “Weren’t you carrying an umbrella?” (the incident occurred during the monsoon season). The woman responded that yes she was carrying an umbrella. Her teacher smiled and told her, “Then you should’ve taken your umbrella, and with all the compassion in your heart, hit your assailant over the head repeatedly.”
That’s wise compassion and maybe that’s what’s meant by saying that the most import thing to do, right now, this very moment, is to care.
So, to sum up today’s sermon…
- When is the most important moment? Now
- Who is the most important person? The person you are with.
- What is the most important thing to do? To care.
In this way, the emperor was able to rule wisely and justly.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…