A Time for Everything
On discernment and contentment from Aesop's Fables— plus, announcing pre order incentives and a SALE on The Soul of Civility!
One of my favorite of Aesop’s Fables—a collection of stories from the late Roman Empire attributed to a witty slave named Aesop, and which, taken together, reveal the moral universe of the ancient world—has haunted me recently.
This story has much to say about our current culture of impatience and discontentment .
The fable on my mind goes like this:
A certain abbot gave his monks three-course meals but the monks said, 'This abbot gives us too little to eat. Let us pray to God that he will die soon.'
Whether for this reason or for some other reason, the abbot soon died. He was replaced by another abbot, and this new abbot gave them two-course meals.
The monks were angry and upset, so they said 'Now we must pray even harder that God will deprive this man of his life, because he has deprived us of one of our courses.'
The abbot then died. He was replaced by a third abbot, who took away yet another course.
The angry monks said, 'This one is the worst of all: he is starving us to death! Let us pray to God that he will die soon.'
Then one of the monks said, 'Meanwhile, I will pray to God that he give this abbot a long life and keep him safe on our behalf.'
The others were surprised and asked him why he said this.
The monk explained, 'I see that our first abbot was bad, the second one worse, and this third abbot is the worst of all. I am afraid that when this one dies, he will be replaced by one who is even worse, and then we really will die of starvation!'
Hence the saying: Bad situations rarely get better.
The grass always greener?
Human beings are resilient. We survive as a species because of our amazing ability to remove ourselves from situations and environments that are perilous to our health or survival.
Yet sometimes, when we change something in our lives, we are surprised to learn that the change didn’t bring the contentment or happiness.
The world promises us that a new job, promotion, car, home, or hair product is the secret to our eternal contentment.
And then we achieve or obtain those things, and are filled with disappointment that they didn’t bring to us the promised peace.
More than than just leaving us empty, however, sometimes, our inclination to act and to make change in our lives only makes things worse.
This is the lesson that the Monks learned. Praying for change in leadership at their monastery—or taking actions to make change oneself—ins’t necessarily a recipe for a better life, inner peace tranquility, or material improvement.
We live in a free market, consumerist society where we are enabled and encouraged to “vote with our feet.”
If we’re not happy with a service or product, we simply take our business elsewhere.
But we are sometimes disappointed when our new product or service provider isn’t necessarily better than the one we walked away from. Our society conditions us to make change, but when is contentment and inaction the appropriate response?
A time for everything, and a season for every activity
The Book of Ecclesiastes, the most existential of books in the Hebrew Bible, says,
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens.
Book Three then goes on to list a series of equal but opposite actions that are at times appropriate. There is…
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance…
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
And so it goes.
And, as the Monks learned about their discontentment with their Abbot, there is a time to pray for change— and a time to be content in our situations, as uncomfortable as they may be.
But how do we know which mode—action or inaction—is warranted, and when?
Human life is complex. Different situations require different responses. There is no single “correct” response to every situation we will face. Life is too fluid, too nuanced for static rules of dos or don’ts.
Human social life requires discernment, prudence. It demands that we cultivate the ability to assess a situation accurately and act in a way that tis well suited to the context.
Cultivating discernment and prudence is hard.
It requires making mistakes for ourselves, learning from them, and resolving not to repeat the same errors again.
If we’re wise, we can also learn through the mistakes of others—those who have come before us, and those who surround us each day.
This is one important use of stories, maxims, and proverbs.
Aesop’s Fables have moral maxims at the end of them, called “epimythium,” that neatly summarize a moral take away from the aforementioned story.
Sometimes, two contradictory epimythium can come right after one another in successive stories—but that’ because different life situations require different responses. Stories with different morals—as well as proverbs and maxims—are like a toolbox.
Each is a tool that, as we learn it, become part of our toolbox of life.
With time and experience, we grow our toolbox and learn which tools are appropriate and when.
Consider several common proverbs that contradict one another.
Consider just a few:
The early bird gets the worm…
Good things come to those who wait…
Birds of a feather flock together…
A good offense is the best defense…
He who lives by the sword dies by the sword…
Manners taketh man…
You can’t judge a book by its cover…
Too many cooks spoil the broth…
Many hands make light work…
So which of these binaries are truth?
In fact, each are true in different times and in different contexts.
Each is a different tool in our toolbox that we learn over time to deploy at the opportune time.
Stories, proverbs and moral maxims stick in our minds and remind us that of the fluidity in human social life, and that different times require different modes of action (or inaction, as in the case of the monks!).
Discerning when to speak up and act, and when to be silent and sit in contentment, is not easy. It requires time, care and practice.
I tend to be someone who’s speaks up and makes change when I see something I think isn’t right, so this prudence and discernment is something I’m constantly striving to foster in my own life each day.
What do you make of the story of the Monks and the Abbot?
How have you cultivated discernment and prudence—as well as contentment— in your life?
What other maxims or proverbs can you think of that are opposites?
Write to me at email@example.com with your thoughts and reflections.
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Thank you for being here.