February 24, 2013
The Wooden Bowl Revisited
I beg your pardon, if I’ve I dropped my fork. Smile with me please, as my feet stumble and I trip over a word and miss when reaching for a thought! What follows is a story and the same story revised, such that you may have heard parts before. Together, they leave the reader with a mixture of feelings, depending upon your point of view – your own thoughts and actions.
The original is attributed to a great man, Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. Intending no disrespect, I’ve added some thoughts that turn his tale upside down at the end. Tolstoy’s version goes like this:
A frail old man went to live with his son, daughter-in-law, and a four-year old grandson. The old man’s hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred, and his step faltered. The family ate together nightly at the dinner table. But the elderly grandfather’s shaky hands and failing sight made eating rather difficult. Peas rolled off his spoon onto the floor. When he reached, milk from his glass often spilled on the tablecloth. The son and daughter-in-law became irritated with the mess. “We must do something about grandfather,” said the son. “I’ve had enough of his spilled milk, noisy eating, and food on the floor,” So it was that were made.
The husband and wife set a small table in the corner. Since grandfather had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl. There, grandfather ate alone while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner at the main table. Sometimes when the family glanced in grandfather’s direction, he had a tear in his eye as he ate alone. Still, the only words the couple had for him were sharp admonitions when he dropped a fork or spilled food.
The four-year-old watched it all in silence. One evening before supper, the father noticed his son playing with wood scraps on the floor. He asked the child sweetly, “What are you making?” Just as sweetly, the boy responded, “Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and mama to eat your food from when I grow up.” The four-year-old smiled and went back to work.
The words so struck the parents that they were speechless. Then tears started to stream down their cheeks. Though no word was spoken, both knew what must be done. That evening the husband took grandfather’s hand and gently led him back to the family table. For the remainder of his days he ate every meal with the family. And for some reason, neither husband nor wife seemed to care any longer when a fork was dropped, milk spilled, or the tablecloth soiled.
As invited when it was sent to me, I checked to verify the Tolstoy connection, which proved true. I was curious as to what Snopes would have to say – which was a lot. Apparently, the story has several variations and many interpretations – but all are in keeping with the general theme – our blindness and tendency to disrespect the feelings of others. While these are examples of insensitivity that should never be ignored, there is a larger, brighter perspective regarding the experience of old age and physical death.
So let’s look at this story from another angle – the idea, as many like to say, that we are spirits having a physical experience. And in view of inevitable aging of the body, we should consider nature’s lessons. Spring and summer give way to fall. And winter, the herald of spring. Without minimizing the challenges presented by the aging process, let’s look again and give the story a slightly different name. We’ll call it; “The Wooden Bowl… Revisited.”
Let’s consider that the old gentleman’s tears could have been for his family rather than for himself. Consider that he could have been crying because his family had thus far failed to understand that the length of our life is not as important as the depth and span of our hearts. Consider that the old man was secure in his knowledge that his real strength did not reside in his body.
It is true that we will be tempted to be fearful of old age, and how we overcome this fear will vary from person to person. What is common to all is the importance of practicing fearlessness – making it the strongest of all our muscles. No one has identified that one perfect phrase – special words with the power to comfort everyone, at every time of need. The peace-filled word is the responsibility of the each of us as we are called upon to offer comfort or strength to the injured and the bereaved. However, the peaceful heart remains the responsibility of the individual – each one in our own way practicing fearlessness right in the face of all that tempts us to dwell upon the uncertainty of our mortal lives.
No one knows how it all works. But our deepest intuitions tell us that we will live – continue to live, possibly uniquely – possibly universally aware though most likely not as – rather as much more than our current life story. I am not referring to or discounting heaven as it is popularly conceived. I’ll simply not burden readers with speculation. Let it be enough to say that Life is eternal. The forms it assumes, including these bodies, change and one day die. And still, Life is eternal! The unique perspective that is me as differentiated from you – can we simply call this the soul? A soul, like the rose, call it any name we like – the you and me and you in me that have never not been and will never not be.
Wooden bowls, ceramic plates – all will fall one day, shattering into unusable pieces. Yet we are nature’s children. Life is not a plate or bowl. Broken, the Life our bodies temporarily contain, remains – a soul untouched by time, un-threatened by infirmity.
So, I beg your pardon if I’ve I dropped my fork, smile with me please, as my feet stumble and I trip over a word and miss when reaching for a thought! Right in the middle of my clumsy execution of the simplest of life’s tasks – let’s laugh wide and deep at a joke none of us really understands. It goes like this: “We are not these bodies. We are immortal souls!”
Reaching to lift it to my lips, I just tipped over a full glass of the best wine. What a joke it is! I may not understand yet, but it felt like the funniest thing I ever did. What made it perfect was when all my friends and loved ones laughed and continued laughing until tears spilled down both sides of our faces.