The parable of the four students

The idea behind this story isn’t particularly original, but it is my own attempt at putting into brief narrative form a fundamental truth about how we experience the world.  In writing this simple story I am drawing from several parables from both eastern and western philosophy–one of which I read in my first year of university and still remember vividly. This is as close as I get to writing fiction, so take it with a grain of salt. Like all parables, this one has a moral, but I am going to resist my teacher impulse to explain it and instead obey my writer impulse to show, not tell.  See if you can figure it out for yourself. confucius_lecture

One day the teacher asked his students to explain the meaning of life.  Of those gathered there, four students put up their hands.

“Very well,” the teacher said to the first.  “Tell me, what is life?”
The first student sighed and said, “Life is a painful, bitter trial.  It is suffering without end, and without meaning or purpose. There is no hope and no joy.” His face held a look of great misery and hopelessness and he carried himself like one laboring under a very heavy burden.

“Yes,” said the teacher.  “You are absolutely correct.”

Then the teacher turned to the second student.  “Tell me, what is life?”
The second student pursed his lips and said, “Life is a long, hard, struggle, but in the end, it is worthwhile.  All of our tears will one day turn to laughter.” His face held a look of pain, and tears shone in his eyes, yet a strong light of courage could be seen there as well, and he carried himself like one who would not be easily beaten down.

“Yes,” said the teacher.  “You are absolutely correct.”

Then the teacher turned to the third student.  “Tell me, what is life?”
The third student shrugged and said, “Life is nothing special.  It is neither here nor there.  All we can do is try to find small pleasures and distractions along the way.  It is all really quite unremarkable, or as a poet once said, much ado about nothing.” His face held a look of boredom and restlessness, and he carried himself like one who wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do, or if he wanted to do anything at all.

“Yes,” said the teacher.  “You are absolutely correct.”

Then the teacher turned to the fourth student.  “Tell me, what is life?”
The fourth student raised his hands and said, “Life is a gift, a song, an adventure.  It is a magnificent story that keeps its audience guessing until the end.  Our time here is an unmitigated blessing and even our hardships can be a source of strength.” His face held a look of enthusiasm and wonder and amazement, and he carried himself like one overwhelmed with gratitude that would not be easily extinguished.

“Yes,” said the teacher.  “You are absolutely correct.”

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