What do we truly want? In other words, what is our purpose for being here? What motivates you and me to get out of bed every morning?
I know that asking “what do you truly want” is indeed a loaded question. But the truth is, when we lose sight of our “why,” life quickly turns into a struggle; despair takes root, and the pangs of emptiness grip us like a noose around our neck.
In Chaim Potok’s book, The Chosen, David grapples with the heart of this question when he shares these words of wisdom with his son:
“Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?
I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life.
It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here.”
David yearns for his son to know that it is both our freedom, and our responsibility to craft our mission while we walk this earth. David contends that one must work diligently to fill his days with meaning, and, that ultimately, the meaning you and I create for our journey today will determine the quality of life we experience tomorrow.
A few years ago my wife, Faith, gave me the book, The Three Questions as a Father’s Day gift. To be honest, I wasn’t so sure what I thought of this gift when I first unwrapped the present. I love children’s books and enjoy reading them to my kids; but I wasn’t sure how Jon Muth’s book based on a story by Leo Tolstoy was going to address my lingering question.
I was grappling with “bigger issues” like trying to find my place in this world. How exactly was a children’s story going to tackle this? But because I wanted to respect my wife for her gift, and, because I enjoy children’s stories, I read the book.
Today I want to share the story with you.
But before we begin, I ask three things of you:
- Read the story with an open mind. Be like a child and read with curiosity.
- If you’ve heard it before, read with fresh eyes. Allow new truths to be revealed to you.
- Share the story with someone you love. Read it to your daughter or son; to your niece or nephew; or, to your grandchild.
The Three Questions
There once was a boy named Nikolai who sometimes felt uncertain about the right way to act. “I want to be a good person,” he told his friends. “But I don’t always know the best way to do that.”
Nikolai’s friends understood and they wanted to help him.
“If only I could find the answers to my three questions,” Nikolai continued, “then I would always know what to do.”
When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important one?
What is the right thing to do?
Nikolai’s friends considered his first question. Then Sonya, the heron, spoke. “To know the best time to do things, one must plan in advance,” she said.
Gogol, the monkey, who had been rooting through some leaves to find something good to eat, said, “You will know when to do things if you watch and pay close attention.”
Then Pushkin, the dog, who was just dozing off, rolled over and said, “You can’t pay attention to everything yourself. You need a pack to keep watch and help you decide when to do things. For example, Gogol, a coconut is about to fall on your head!”
Nikolai thought for a moment. Then he asked his second question. “Who is the most important one?”
“Those who are closest to heaven,” said Sonya, circling up into the sky.
“Those who know how to heal the sick,” said Gogol, stroking his bruised noggin.
“Those who make the rules,” growled Pushkin.
Nikolai thought some more. Then he asked the third question. “What is the right thing to do?”
“Flying,” said Sonya.
“Having fun all the time,” laughed Gogol.
“Fighting,” barked Pushkin right away.
Then the boy thought for a long time. He loved his friends. He knew they were all trying their best to help him answer his questions. But their answers didn’t seem quite right.
Then, an idea came to him. I know! he thought. I will ask Leo, the turtle. He has lived a very long time. Surely he will know the answers I am looking for.
Nikolai hiked up into the mountains where the old turtle lived all alone.
When Nikolai arrived, he found Leo digging a garden. The turtle was old and digging was hard for him.
“I have three questions and I came to ask your help,” Nikolai said.
“When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?”
Leo listened carefully, but he only smiled.
Then he went on with his digging.
“You must be tired,” Nikolai said at last. “Let me help you.” The turtle gave him his shovel and thanked him.
And because it was easier for a young boy to dig than it was for an old turtle, Nikolai kept on digging until the rows were finished.
But just as he finished, the wind blew wildly and rain burst from darkened clouds. As they moved toward the cottage for shelter, Nikolai suddenly heard a cry for help.
Running down the path, he found a panda whose leg had been injured by a fallen tree. Carefully, Nikolai carried her into Leo’s house and made a splint for her leg with a stick of bamboo.
The storm ragged on, banging at the doors and windows. The panda woke up.
“Where am I?” she said. “And where is my child?”
The boy ran out of the cottage and down the path. The roar of the storm was deafening.
Pushing against the howling wind and drenching rain, he ran farther into the forest. There he found the panda’s child, cold and shivering on the ground.
The little panda was wet and scared, but alive. Nikolai carried her inside and made her warm and dry. Then he laid her in her mother’s arms.
Leo smiled when he saw what the boy had done.
The next morning the sun was warm, birds sang, and all was well with the world. The panda’s leg was healing nicely, and she thanked Nikolai for saving her and her baby from the storm.
At that moment, Sonya, Gogol, and Pushkin arrive to make sure everyone was all right.
Nikolai felt great peace within himself. He had wonderful friends. And he had saved the panda and her child. But he also felt disappointed. He had still not found the answers to his three questions. So he asked Leo one more time.
The old turtle looked at the boy. “But your questions have been answered!” he said.
“They have?” asked the boy.
“Yesterday, if you had not stayed to help me dig my garden, you wouldn’t have heard the panda’s cries for help in the storm. Therefore, the most important time was the you spent digging the garden. The most important one at that moment was me, and the most important thing to do was to help me with my garden. “Later, when you found the injured panda, the most important time was the time you spent mending her leg and saving her child. The most important ones were the panda and her baby. And the most important thing to do was to take care of them and make them safe.
“Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, me dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.
“This is why we are here.”
Today’s Unitas Project:
- Food for thought: Could it be that our search for meaning is not discovered in the question, “what is my place in this world?” but rather in, “who will I choose to be?” and, “how will I choose to show up today?”
Until next time…
Be You. Be Unitas.
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