A Modern Fable
The teacher had come to the city from some distance away, after a period of wondering and wandering. She slowly came to feel at home in the city, in the same way she felt at home while wandering. She settled in and found work in the city’s school. People trusted her, even though they could not always understand her motivations and could not always predict her opinions. She was not without enemies, but she also counted many of her enemies as friends.
When she arrived, people were already beginning to talk of a Great Divide, a disagreement that would eventually split the city. There were people on both sides who had strong convictions, and some who were uncertain, and as time went on the Great Divide widened. Those who were uncertain felt pressured to choose, and the two sides grew, in number and in unanimity on the surface, though not in depth and commitment. As each side grew larger in number, their ideas became hollower, and as the strength of people’s belief grew it became less clear what they believed in.
The divide widened, but there remained some who refused to choose sides, who saw that the logic of the divide was the source of confusion. There were important questions the city needed to answer, but there were no simple answers. While others were quick to declare that they had solutions to all the problems, the unchosen were cautious.
The teacher was among the first of the unchosen. She understood that the Great Divide could not be resolved, because it was a false divide. She came to believe that people on both sides were trying to answer the wrong questions with the wrong methods. They were making the wrong assumptions. She did her best to teach children to think beyond that divide, but every year the gap between the two sides grew wider.
During the early years of the city, there had been different groups and divides among them. Alliances had formed and reformed, and this politics produced not a perfect city but a workable city. From the beginning there had been problems, and people saw the problems and struggled with them. But as the wealth and power of the city grew, the people found it easier to ignore these problems. There had always been some people who had far more than others, but everyone -- even those who had little -- believed that the future was bringing more for everyone. There had always been places that were despoiled by all that the city produced, but everyone -- even those living on the edge -- believed that there would always be new spaces opened.
As the city grew to its limits and then past those limits, it became harder to believe there would always be more for everyone, harder to believe there would be more space. The problems could be ignored until one day they could no longer be ignored. But on that day, people continued to look away. The time of expansion passed and the time of contraction began, and the Great Divide began to define the city.
Even though most people didn’t speak of the limits, they knew the limits were there. They knew the contraction had started. But after so many generations of always-more, expansion was all that people knew. All of their stories were stories of expansion, stories of glory. There had always been enough, and there would always be more. Until there was no longer more, and then no longer enough.
As the contraction tightened, everyone recognized that the city would have to change. Some of the leaders understood, while some refused to accept it. But none of the leaders would surrender their stories of glory. So they reshaped the old stories for the new time.
The Scientized Story
For generations the scientists and engineers of the city had created more and more new things. Everyone marveled at their abilities, as if they were not just inventing new things but creating a new world. As more and more sources of energy were discovered -- new material drawn from the ground that burned brighter than anyone could have imagined -- there seemed to be no limits. Everyone celebrated the accomplishments of the scientists and the engineers, and the city’s glory multiplied.
Everyone knew that these new creations also destroyed. All of this building left some areas on the edge of the city despoiled. But the scientists and engineers promised that they could invent ways to restore what had been ruined. They promised that in the future the new machines would be cleaner. They promised there would always be more efficient ways to generate the energy the city needed.
With every new turn of this wheel, the scientists and engineers expanded what they knew and what they knew how to do. Most people could no longer understand the devices and machines they used every day, but they also believed they could not live without them. When things failed, people could not understand why and could not repair them. But there was no end to the new things, and so people had to have what was new.
As the world contracted, the scientized story reassured people: There could be more. We could invent it with human hands.
The Sanctified Story
For generations, the priests of the city had interpreted the scriptures to sanctify the glory of the city. Those stories of faith in the city’s mission had comforted many during the time that wealth and power grew so rapidly. When people felt uneasy about problems, the stories of faithful glory eased their anxiety.
As the scientists explained more and more about how the world worked, the priests found that fewer people needed the stories of faith to understand daily life. But those who remained faithful believed in those stories more than ever. For generations the priests had told their stories alongside the work of the scientists and engineers. But the more that science revealed, the more the priests insisted that the stories of faith were supreme.
With every new turn of this wheel, the priests looked more deeply into the scriptures to find the answers that would allow them to challenge the scientists and engineers. Many ordinary people could not always understand how to make sense of these stories, but they also believed they could not live without them. When the priests’ teachings conflicted with the peoples’ troubles in the world, people could not always understand what the stories meant. Still, they accepted the stories. But as new things kept coming, some people wanted what was old because what was new seemed frightening.
As the world contracted, the sanctified story reassured people: There could be more. We could proclaim it as God’s will.
The Great Divide
The scientized and sanctified stories lived together uneasily for several generations. But as the contraction intensified, and along with it people’s fears, leaders on both sides began to demand sole allegiance. This was the beginning of the Great Divide.
The scientized story was reassuring for secular people. The sanctified story was reassuring for religious people. People who were committed to these different stories continued to live and work next to each other. But outside the routine of life, they rarely mixed. Some people built their lives around church and others had networks of those who rejected church. They spent less time together, each increasingly convinced that the other was fundamentally mistaken about how to understand the world. They talked endlessly about each other but rarely to each other.
The politics of the city shifted as well. The alliances that had formed during the time of expansion fell apart, and the positions of leaders hardened. The two camps had a variety of names, for themselves and each other, which changed over time. But the two camps remained at odds, and the philosophical split became a social split and then political, and then one day someone named the Great Divide. No one is sure who first used the term, or which side it came from. But once it was spoken, it became reality.
Once the Great Divide became reality, the city became divided in every way.
The False Divide
As the teacher watched the divide grow, she steadfastly refused to choose. The more people on both sides said, “You have to choose because the future of the city is at stake,” the more she resisted, for the sake of the future of the city.
Slowly, the unchosen found each other. They came from different places with different lives, but they agreed that the Great Divide was preventing people from facing the depth of the contraction. The Great Divide was a false one. The differences that defined the two groups and their stories were real, but the focus on those differences was obscuring the threats that both groups ignored.
The unchosen saw that neither group questioned how everyone had come to desire more, or how everyone had come to assume the city would find deliverance in the future. The wealth and power of the city kept people in a trance, and always-more had become so deeply woven into people’s lives that they could not see where it had taken them. They could only desire, and in a time of contraction that desire could only lead to fervor for deliverance.
The secular believed that human knowledge could deliver perpetual bounty on earth. The religious believed that God could deliver perpetual bounty in heaven. Those who believed in the scientized story could not see that their beliefs were based on their own brand of faith. Those who believed in the sanctified story could not see that the way they lived depended on science.
The unchosen began to meet and talk, searching for a way to bridge the Great Divide. They talked about the past and the time of expansion. They talked about what would be needed to face the future in a time of contraction. They did not want to reconstruct the old alliances that had kept hidden the problems of the city but instead wanted to change the story.
The group gathered to talk about the task and to sit together in silence. They came to these conclusions: Faith should be the fire that warms us to each other, but instead it had grown cold. Invention should teach the humility that leads us to caution, but instead it had become arrogant. The sacred and the scientific, which both had once warned of idolatry, had created sanctified and scientized idols.
The Unchosen Story
As the unchosen talked, they decided that they would challenge the Great Divide. At their gatherings, the unchosen began to ask: “What story would we tell? There are stories of scientists and their discoveries. There are stories of God and revelation. What would our story be?”
The teacher said, “Our story would be about possibility and limits. It would be a story of joy and grief.”
Would it be a story about science or about religion? Would it have a happy or sad ending? Would the hero be a scientist or God?
The teacher said, “Our story is about both science and religion, about possibilities and limits. Our story is not happy or sad; it is about joy and grief. And there are no heroes, because it is an honest story, and an honest story can only be about humility.”
When others asked her to tell that story, this is what she said:
The Teacher’s Story
There once were three friends who sometimes took a break from their work to walk along the river that flowed out of the city. They traveled past the houses, past the fields, eventually to the point where there were no other people. They talked along the way but just as often were silent during the day, as they became lost in their own thoughts and the sounds around them. Their silence gave each of them time to think without questions and then to not think at all. The three looked forward to these trips both for what they thought and what they did not have to think as they walked, for what was and what was not, for what could be but did not have to be. There was fullness in the emptiness of the time.
On this trip the three walked the river to the edge of the city’s territory, and then made a camp to rest and sleep the night before turning toward home. When they rose, each reported a fitful night of dreams that were powerful but unclear. Then, without warning, they felt a presence. They looked at each other, each seeing the fear in the others, and were quiet. It was then they noticed the calm all around them. The water was still, the air was not moving, and the birds were not singing, which made them more afraid. Did the fitful dreams and the silent morning signal some great shift, that perhaps the world was ending? They were unsure of what to say or where to go. They looked at each other but did not speak or move. Then they heard a voice.
The voice said, gently, “You do not need to be afraid of what you imagine, only of what you have done.”
The three looked in every direction but saw nothing. They looked as far in the distance as they could, but there was no one.
“Stop straining to hear. The world is silent so that you can hear me,” the voice said. “Stop searching for me. You don’t need to see me to hear me.”
Nothing like this had ever happened to the three, who lived ordinary lives. One was a farmer who tended the gardens of the city. Another was a carpenter who constructed the homes of the city. The third was a worker who labored in the city. They were commoners, not part of the special class that interpreted history and invented the future, the wizards and the magicians. The three did not know whether the voice was God or Nature, but they knew they were not equipped to hear.
They said to the voice: “You are speaking to the wrong people. There are others in our city with gifts that allow them to understand you. Some of them are able to understand God, and some are able to understand Nature. You should speak to them.”
“If I wanted to speak to them, do you think I could not have chosen them?” the voice said. “You are here so that you can return to the city and help others see, if they are willing.”
The voice began. “Start with this: I am what you call God, and you will never know me.”
The three said, “Yes, it is true that God is a mystery.”
“No, I am not God and I am not a mystery,” the voice said. “I am mystery. I am the name people first gave to mystery.”
“We know that we do not know you, but certainly you know yourself,” the three said.
The voice replied, “Do you or any of your people today, the most gifted, understand all there is to understand about the world?”
The three replied, “We can know only part of all there is to know.”
“And can any of you know, ever in your imagination, everything there is to know about Creation?” the voice asked.
“Some dream of knowing, but even they admit it is impossible,” the three said. “Only the truly mad believe that someday they will know everything.”
“What do you call that not-knowing, those things beyond knowing?’ the voice asked.
“Some call it God. Some speak of being in awe of the universe,” the three answered.
“I am that. I am mystery.”
“But when people pray to God, to whom are they praying?” the three asked.
“They pray to mystery.”
“But if mystery is what we do not know, if it is the knowledge that is absent, then who are you? What is present in you?” the three asked.
“I am the presence of that absence,” the voice answered.
“If you are absence of knowledge, then what do you know? If you are absence, then what are you at all? How can we hear your voice? How can the absence of anything have a voice?” the three asked. “How can God be everything that is mystery to us and be nothing? How could we hear that?”
“I am what I am,” the voice said. “The rest is for you.”
“The rest of what? For us to do what?” the three asked.
“The rest of the story is for you to tell,” the voice said.
The voice continued. “I am Nature, and you know everything you need to know about me.”
The three were confused. How could the voice be both unknown and known?
The voice said: “When you plant, you understand how the sun and the rain nourish the crops. When you build, you understand how the wood and the stone fit together. When you labor, you understand what your body can do.”
“But we do not know everything,” the three said.
The voice replied: “I did not say you knew everything. I said you know everything you need to know.”
The three agreed that they knew much about their work, and that as long as they were careful, what they knew was enough.
“But if we know everything we need to know, why does each day bring us more knowledge?” the three asked.
The voice answered: “Each day you know everything you need to know for that day. But every new day is new, and you learn what is needed for that day.”
“But Nature does not change every day. The world has been the world forever,” the three said.
The voice explained: “The world that you see has not changed, but the world beyond what you see never stops changing, in ways you will never understand.”
“If the world changes every day, and all the knowledge of the world is beyond us, how can we survive?” the three asked.
“You have survived for generations because change has rules, and there was a time when your people knew how to follow those rules,” the voice said. “The rest is for you.”
“The rest of what? For us to do what?” the three asked.
“The rest of the story is for you to tell,” The voice said.
The Failure of Genius
The three struggled to understand but could not grasp it all. They were commoners, not people who possessed any of the gifts.
“We could return home and bring to you people who are better suited to understand this,” the three said. “There are those who understand history and understand the future in ways we cannot. There are brilliant men and women in the city. There are some they say are geniuses.”
“Genius has failed your people; you do not need more of it,” the voice said. “Genius is genius only when it recognizes that it is inadequate, and then it is no longer genius.”
The three asked, “Should we not trust those with gifts?”
The voice answered: “Their gifts are real but the stories they tell will always be incomplete. The failure is not in the incompleteness but in believing that incomplete stories are the whole story. That is the failure of the city, to have built beyond its reach. Your knowledge has gone too far but not far enough. So your city has gone too far. Your people have built systems you cannot control, and now they control you.”
“But our city is strong and prosperous,” the three said. “How can you say it has failed?”
The voice answered: “Is your city clean? Is it safe? Perhaps it is in the places where the gifted live and work, the places where the patrons of the gifted live. But when you travel to other parts of the city, what do you find? You find the places that have to exist if a city is to prosper. You find the places that have been abandoned, and there you find the people who have been abandoned.”
The voice continued: “And what is underneath and above the city? What is happening to the soil and the water, and to the air and the sky? All the machines that run the city, they require resources dug from the ground. Where do those come from and how are they disposed of?”
The voice concluded: “And what is beyond the city? Do those places resemble the places your elders remember? What is left beyond the city? The three of you walked this river, which was once one of many such rivers. Do you wonder why this is the last river?”
“But in the city we have so much more than any elder can remember,” the three said. “Even those who have very little have more than they had the generation before. How could we blame them for giving us more?”
The voice answered: “Do not blame generations past. When they built the city, they did not understand the costs of what they were building. The city made possible such bounty that almost no one could see the costs, and those who warned of the costs appeared to be mad. It was a glorious story of a new time when people would never again want for anything.”
The voice continued: “But now your people are afraid to look around. They are afraid of the truth of those costs. The ability to see does not guarantee vision. The ability to know does not guarantee wisdom. The stories that people in the city tell are glorious. But telling stories of glory does not guarantee a glorious ending.”
The voice concluded: “Your generation is to blame only if you don’t tell a different story.”
The three answered, “We know there are problems within the city and outside. But we also have sacred places that we care for. There are places where we sing our songs and where the gifted teach. There are places outside the city we leave undisturbed, where we take nothing from the ground.”
“Why do you think you have the right to mark some places as special?” the voice said, angry for the first time. “Either every place is sacred or no place is sacred.”
The voice was calm again: “Imagine you are crying under the water of the river. Your tears are your tears, but in an instant they are absorbed into all the water around you. If your tears have meaning, then the river must have meaning. There is no division between you and the world. What you do to the world you do to yourselves.”
The voice paused and then said: “This is the most important message to take back to the city. All the world is sacred, or nothing is sacred. Either you understand that all the world is alive or all the world will die.”
After another pause, the voice said, “You do not own the world. The world owns you.”
Learning to Give Up
The three said, “The city is large and many people are still prosperous. When we return, few will want to listen to this. Even those who will hear us out will ask how they are to make sense of what we’ve heard.”
The voice said, “That is your task, to persuade the people to give up.”
The three asked, “Give up what? Give up to whom?”
The voice said, “Not to give up anything to anyone, but to give up on the obsession with knowledge, to give up the illusion of control.”
The three asked, “Why is it wrong with wanting to know, with wanting to have control?”
The voice answered: “Knowledge is not bad, and seeking to control is not wrong. The danger is in not understanding where your knowledge stops and when your ability to control ends. The danger is in believing that the ability to see what is in front of you today allows you to see what will be there tomorrow. The danger is in believing that all the knowledge adds up to wisdom, that being able to change something means being able to control it.
The voice continued: “There is danger in the scientists thinking they are me and danger in the priests thinking that they know me. But the greatest danger is in anyone believing that I am God or Nature. Ask the people to give up on hubris and embrace humility. Ask them to give up on more and embrace less.”
The voice concluded: “Then ask them to give up on me. Ask people to understand that I have no power. Ask people to laugh at me.”
The three said, “But if you created all that there is and if you are all that there is, how can you say you have no power? How can we laugh at you?”
“I didn’t say I created all that there is, and I didn’t say I was anything. That is what you say about me,” the voice said. “I am mystery and I am absence. There is no power to create in mystery and absence. There is power only in understanding the boundaries between knowledge and mystery, between presence and absence.”
The three asked, “You say that you are and you are not, that your knowledge is mystery, that your presence is absence. Who are you?”
“I am all those things that I am,” the voice said. “You need me, but there is no me, and no one else can be me.”
The three said, “What you have told us is confusing and hard to understand. What if we fail when we try to explain this to people in the city?”
The voice said, “Of course you will fail.”
The three were confused. “Why would you give us a message to spread if you know we will fail?”
The voice said: “Do you remember when you first heard me? You thought the world was coming to an end. You were right. The city that people have made has always been coming to an end. That has always been out of your hands. All you could ever control was the speed of the process, and that is where the city has failed. The end is coming sooner than necessary.”
The three asked, “If it is going to end, then why speak to us, or anyone from the city, even the gifted?”
The voice said: “Do you remember when I said, ‘You do not need to be afraid of what you imagine, only of what you have done’? You have no reason to fear what you imagine me to be. I am everything and nothing, and there is no way to imagine that, so there is no reason to fear me. Be afraid of what you have done.”
The three asked again: “What can we do with that fear? If we are destined to fail, should we not be afraid?”
The voice said: “Imagine that fear differently. Start to imagine the future by seeing the reality of each moment. As long as you don’t understand the present, you cannot understand the future. If you see the present clearly, you can imagine the future in new ways. Even when the end is inevitable, there are different ways of getting to the end, some better and some worse.”
The three asked, “Is it possible that others will listen to us.”
The voice asked, “Was it possible that you heard me?”
The three asked, “Why have you chosen us for this task?”
The voice responded: “Did I say that I would speak only to you? What makes you think you are the only ones who hear me?”
The three started to ask the voice to guide them to any others who had heard, but they stopped before asking. The sounds of the water, the air, and the birds had returned. Time began again. The voice was gone.
The three friends sat together quietly for some time, listening to the sounds of the world and thinking. They had no way to explain what had just happened, and so they were quiet. Then they packed their things and began the walk back to the city. Along the way they talked about how they would tell others, afraid they would be seen as mad and be cast out of the city.
When they got to the edge of the city, they saw a group assembled. As they quickened their pace to see what was happening, the three heard the people shout, “They are here. They have returned.” The three were confused and made their way to the center, where they saw some of the gifted and asked them what happened while they were away.
One of the gifted spoke: “We have been waiting for you to return. We are ready to hear.”
The three looked at each other and then asked, “Hear what?”
The gifted one said, “While you were gone, people all over the city had a dream in which they heard a strange voice. The voice said only that we should prepare for the return of the three who would come with a message. Are you the three? Are you the prophets?”
Telling the Teacher’s Story
The teacher stopped speaking. The others asked her, what comes next? What did the three say to the city? The teacher explained that the story ended there, with a question, not an answer. The first step is not providing answers. It is to understand ourselves.
The others argued that the story should not be left unresolved. How would the city respond? Could the city chart a new course? Stories are meant to teach, and it seemed strange that the teacher did not want to use her story for a clearer purpose. Wasn’t the reason for a new story to help people bridge the Great Divide?
The teacher argued back: The story teaches a lesson about humility. How could a story teach humility but then end with instructions about how the future should be shaped? Who could know that much? How can a story about humility end in hubris?
But others still resisted: We face a Great Divide. People are convinced that they are correct. Each side believes its story is true. How can we persuade anyone with a story about our uncertainty? If they charge forward without hesitation, what hope is there in a story about complexity and confusion?
The teacher responded: Complexity and confusion do not stop us from moving forward but make us more aware of the consequences of moving. The story does not advise people to avoid making decisions, but only suggests care in making a decision.
The conversation continued until it was meal time. After sitting and talking for so long, everyone was glad for a break, and people drifted off to eat and talk more. After some time had passed, the group came back together and the discussion began again, but the teacher was missing. They went outside and saw the teacher walking away, and when they started to call out to her, she was gone.
The unchosen returned to the table to wonder if the teacher would return. Some said they were having trouble remembering exactly what the teacher looked or sounded like. Others said she was clearer in their minds than ever. Some said it seemed as if the teacher was never there. Others said that they could feel the teacher in the room with them.
The unchosen began to tell the teacher’s story, but the Great Divide between people widened and eventually gave way to the Great Correction of the earth, and for many years the light of the city was dimmed. The Great Correction brought suffering, first to those with the least but eventually to all. First the people struggled without enough for all to survive, and then the struggles left the people without imagination.
Through it all, the teacher’s story never died. The story of the voice and the three was kept alive. And in time, when the people wanted to imagine again, they told the story. As the times changed, the story changed. People told stories about where the teacher came from and where she went. People created names for the voice and the three, and those names changed as the story changed. Eventually, the teacher was forgotten and only the stories remained.
There are stories within stories, which are always within another story. The world is built on those stories. The stories are real and illusion. The stories are transient and permanent. People should take their stories as seriously as they take their own lives but never believe their stories.
Learn to live in your imagination and live in the world at the same time.
Some people use stories to find a past glory they think they remember and believe they can reclaim. Others use stories to find a future glory they want to imagine and believe they can create. Stories of remembered glory lead backward into mazes from which one never returns. Stories of imagined glory lead forward to deserts in which one cannot survive. Stories of glory are the easiest to tell, the most seductive to believe. Stories of how to live without glory are harder to tell, the most difficult to live.
Learn to live neither in the past nor the future, but in the present, without glory.
(J.H. Marten is the pseudonym of a writer and educator based in the United States. Marten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)