A Young Man Desires to Learn the Art of Swordsmanship

Once upon a time there was a young man who desired to learn the art of the sword, so he journeyed to the mountain hut of a retired master and asked to be his disciple. The master agreed, and then put the young man to work splitting wood, cooking rice, drawing water from a nearby spring, and doing other chores to care for the house in general. There seemed to be no formal instruction in the art of swordsmanship, so after a while, the young man became frustrated. He did not come to this mountain hut be a slave to the master; he came to learn the art of swordsmanship. So he approached the master about the matter.

After that discussion, the young man still was asked to complete seemingly mundane tasks with no apparent instruction in the art of the sword, except that now he could not do any of his chores without fear–for when he would be cooking rice in the morning, all of a sudden the master would hit him in the back with a stick. Or when he would be sweeping the garden in the afternoon, he would suddenly  be struck from an unknown direction by the master. After a period of time time, the young man was sometimes able to dodge the blow, but he never knew where or when to expect it.

But when the young man saw the master cooking his own vegetables one day, he decided it was pay back time. The young man took a big stick, crept up behind the master who was stooping over the pot to stir the vegetables, and let the stick fall over the master’s head–but the master, just in time, had raised the lid of the pan just in time to block the young man’s blow. 

This act opened the young man’s mind to the secrets of the art, and he was filled with gratitude for the master’s kindness.

(Adapted from Daisetz T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture)

Some Larger Way, Path, or Errand

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

“‘That sounds like a bit of old Bilbo’s rhyming,’ said Pippin.

. . .

“‘I don’t know,’ said Frodo. ‘It came to me then, as if I was making it up; but I may have heard it long ago. Certainly it reminds me very much of Bilbo in the last years, before he went away. He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?” He used to say that on the path outside the front door at Bag End, especially after he had been out for a long walk.'”

(The Lord of the Rings, one volume edition, p. 73-74)

A Story about Two Small Boys, and a Small Accident,” by David A. Bednar

“One evening,” David A. Bednar writes, “Susan and I stood near a window in our home and watched two of our little boys playing outside. During the course of their adventures, the younger of the two boys was injured slightly in a small accident. We quickly recognized that he was not seriously hurt, and we decided not to provide immediate assistance. We wanted to observe and see if any of our family discussions about brotherly kindness had sunk in. What happened next was both interesting and instructive.

“The older brother consoled and carefully helped the younger brother back into the house. Susan and I had positioned ourselves near the kitchen so we could see what next took place, and we were prepared to intervene immediately if additional bodily harm seemed likely or a serious accident was imminent.
“The older brother dragged a chair to the kitchen sink. He climbed up on the chair, assisted his brother onto the chair, turned on the water, and proceeded to pour a large quantity of dishwashing soap onto the scratched arm of his little brother. He did his best to gently wash away the dirt. The reaction of the little brother to this procedure can only be described accurately using language from the holy scriptures: “And they shall have cause to howl, and weep, and wail, and gnash their teeth” (Mosiah 16:2). And did that little boy howl!

“After the scrubbing was finished, the arm was carefully dried with a towel. Eventually the screaming stopped. The older brother next climbed up onto the kitchen counter, opened a cabinet, and found a new tube of medicated ointment. Though the scratches on his little brother were not large or extensive, the older brother applied almost all of the ointment in the tube to the entire injured arm. The screaming did not resume, as the little brother clearly liked the soothing effect of the ointment much more than he appreciated the cleansing effect of the dishwashing soap.

“The older brother returned again to the cabinet in which he had found the ointment and located a new box of sterile bandages. He then unwrapped and put bandages all up and down his brother’s arm—from the wrist to the elbow. With the emergency resolved, and with soap bubbles, ointment, and wrappers all over the kitchen, the two little boys hopped down from the chair with bright smiles and happy faces.
“What happened next is most important. The injured brother gathered up the remaining bandages and the almost empty tube of ointment, and he went back outside. He quickly sought out his friends and began to put ointment and bandages on their arms. Susan and I both were struck by the sincerity, enthusiasm, and rapidity of his response.
“Why did that little boy do what he did? Please note that he immediately and intuitively wanted to give to his friends the very thing that had helped him when he was hurt. That little boy did not have to be urged, challenged, prompted, or goaded to act. His desire to share was the natural consequence of a most helpful and beneficial personal experience.”

From “Come and See,” Ensign, November 2014, 108.

A Short Story from a Book about Technology

The book is called User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts, but don’t let the title turn you off–it’s a pretty good book. But while theory books seldom have short stories in them, here is one of the ones in this book, written in first-person by the author, Robert R. Johnson:

“I don’t think that I could have been much more than ten or eleven years old, but the memory is nevertheless pungently clear. I was standing on the corner of Fifth and Broadway in Gary, Indiana (the town where I was ‘born and bred’ as they say), waiting for my father to come out of the building where he had an office. As I waited, I watched a man dressed in a doorman’s uniform step from the front door of the First National Bank with a large push broom in his hand. Once out on the sidewalk, he began sweeping and continue to do so until he had whisked a significant amount of white-gray, dusty material out to the curb. He then pushed the dusty residue down the length of the sidewalk, off the curb, into the street, and finally into a storm-sewer grate where it fell quickly out of sight. The doorman returned to the main entrance of the bank, and with the broom still in his hand, held the door for a customer who stepped out onto the temporarily clean sidewalk.

“Not long after the workman was done sweeping, my father appeared and we began walking to our car. On the way, I asked my father, ‘Why was that old man sweeping the sidewalk in front of the bank?’ ‘He does it to keep people from tracking the dirt into the bank,’ my father replied. ‘It helps to keep the carpets in the bank from getting dirty so fast.’ Still not completely satisfied with the answer, I continued, ‘Why does the bank sidewalk get dirty so fast?’ To answer this question, my father stopped, turned, and pointed his finger toward the north–directly at the main ‘Works’ of U.S. Steel that lay a scant five blocks away. ‘You see the smoke coming from the “Works?” [sic] There’s a lot of dust and dirt in that smoke, and it falls like rain on the downtown sidewalks every day and night. It’s especially thick when water is dumped on the hot steel after it comes out of the blast furnaces. The man at the bank is kept pretty busy keeping that dust out of the bank lobby.’

“Just then, I saw a large white-gray cloud appear over the ‘Works,’ and it was followed by a muffled roar. ‘There . . . there it is now. They’re pouring the water on the hot steel–thousands of gallons of it. There will be plenty more dust for him to sweep soon enough,’ he said as we turned back in the direction of the car. As we continued down the sidewalk, I noticed that the sky was changing color, to a sort of white-gray.”

An Imaginary Conversation with Someone from an Earlier Era and a Journey Through a Cave

“Suppose you were able to travel back in time and have a conversation with people who lived a thousand or even a hundred years ago. Imagine trying to describe to them some of the modern technologies that you and I take for granted today. For example, what might these people think of us if we told them stories of jumbo jets, microwave ovens, handheld devices that contain vast digital libraries, and videos of our grandchildren that we instantly share with millions of people around the world?

“Some might believe us. Most would ridicule, oppose, or perhaps even seek to silence or harm us. Some might attempt to apply logic, reason, and facts as they know them to show that we are misguided, foolish, or even dangerous. They might condemn us for attempting to mislead others.

“But of course, these people would be completely mistaken. They might be well-meaning and sincere. They might feel absolutely positive of their opinion. But they simply would not be able to see clearly because they had not yet received the more complete light of truth.”

From Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Receiving a Testimony of Light and Truth,” Ensign, November 2014, 20. See this link for a video clip of the entire address.

Whenever we teach someone to do something new, we assume a similar perspective–we assume that we see more than our students. Say we are teaching students how to write. We see something our students can do to improve, so we tell them about it. They may become frustrated and angry. It is never easy to be asked to change. But if we are going to help our students become better writers, then we must point out what they can do differently. In short, we assume that we see more than they do.

It is like this classic story that you’ve all heard or read at some time or another. Two people are discussing education, and one says to the other:

“Next, I said, compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this: Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets.”

“I’m imagining it.”

“Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artifacts that project above it–statues of people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you’d expect, some of the carriers are talking, and some are silent.”

“It’s a strange image you’re describing, and strange prisoners.”

“They’re like us. Do you suppose, first of all, that these prisoners see anything of themselves and one another besides the shadows that the fire casts on the wall in front of them?”

“How could they, if they have to keep their heads motionless throughout life?”

“What about the things being carried along the wall? Isn’t the same true of them?”

“Of course.”

“And if they could talk to one another, don’t you think they’d suppose that the names they used applied to the things they see passing before them?”

“They’d have to.”

“And what if their prison also had an echo from the wall facing them? Don’t you think they’d believe that the shadows passing in front of them were talking whenever one of the carriers passing along the wall was doing so?”

“I certainly do.”

“Then the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.”

“They must surely believe that.”

“Consider, then, what being released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance would naturally be like, if something like this came to pass. When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before. What do you think he’d say, if we told him that what he’d seen before was inconsequential, but that now–because he is a bit closer to the things that are and is turned towards things that are more–he sees more correctly? Or, to put it another way, if we pointed to each of the things passing by, asked him what each of them is, and compelled him to answer, don’t you think he’d be at a loss and that he’d believe that the things he saw earlier were truer than the ones he was now being shown?”

“Much truer.”

“And if someone compelled him to look at the light itself, wouldn’t his eyes hurt, and wouldn’t he turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the one’s he’s being shown?”

“He would.”

“And if someone dragged him away from there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be pained and irritated at being treated that way? And when he came into the light, with the sun filling his eyes, wouldn’t he be unable to see a single one of the things now said to be true?”

“He would be unable to see them, at least at first.”

“I suppose, then, that he’d need time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above. At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things in water, then the things themselves. Of these, he’d be able to study the things in the sky and the sky itself more easily at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than during the day, looking at the sun and the light of the sun.”

“Of course.”

“Finally, I suppose, he’d be able to see the sun, not images of it in water or some alien place, but the sun itself, in its own place, and be able to study it.”

“Necessarily so.”

“And at this point he would infer and conclude that the sun provides the seasons and the years, governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all the things that he used to see.”

“It’s clear that would be his next step.”

“What about when he reminds himself of his first dwelling place, his fellow prisoners, and what passed for wisdom there? Don’t you think that he’d count himself happy for the change and pity the others?”

“Certainly.”

“And if there had been any honors, praises, or prizes among them for the one who was sharpest at identifying the shadows as they passed by and who best remembered which usually came earlier, which later, and which simultaneously, and who could thus best divine the future, do you think that our man would desire these rewards or envy those among the prisoners who were honored and held power? Instead, wouldn’t he feel, with Homer, that he’d much prefer to ‘work the earth as a serf to another, one without possessions,’ and go through any sufferings, rather than share their opinions and live as they do?”

“I suppose he would rather suffer anything than live like that.”

“Consider this too. If this man went down into the cave again and sat down in his same seat, wouldn’t his eyes–coming suddenly out of the sun like that–be filled with darkness?”

“They certainly would.”

“And before his eyes had recovered–and the adjustment would not be quick–while his vision was still dim, if he had to compete again with the perpetual prisoners in recognizing the shadows, wouldn’t he invite ridicule? Wouldn’t it be said of him that he’d returned from his upward journey with his eyesight ruined and that it isn’t worthwhile even to try to travel upward? . . . “

“They certainly would.”

That’s from C. D. C. Reeve’s revision of G. M. A. Grube’s translation of Book VII of Plato’s Republic, 514a-517a.

A Dancing Dog

“My dog,” Kenneth Burke writes, “is a dancer . . . in the surprising way he conjugates, let us say, the verb ‘to eat.’ For the present tense he uses, quite literally, the act of eating. But for the future tense, to say ‘I will eat,’ he sniffs at his plate, glances ill-naturedly at the cat, and salivates. And to express the perfect tense of this astoundingly irregular virb, to say ‘I have eaten,’ he picks himself a cool spot under the porch, curls up, and goes to sleep” (“The Dance: The ‘Problems’ of the Ballet.” Nation 140 (March 1935): 343-44.)

A Short Story Illustrating Something Ironic that Will Be Discussed More in a Later Post

Normally it takes more than 15 minutes to get there. You have only 10 minutes before it starts, though, and you’re just now pulling out of the driveway. You hit the gas. It’s early, so hopefully no one will be on the roads.

I didn’t make this picture–and it’s only vaguely
relevant–but it is pretty awesome.

You’re making good time, and the speedometer proves it. Things are going well–until you see the red and blue flashing lights in the rear-view mirror. You cringed, and your eyes dart down at the speedometer. Then your heart sinks. You hit the breaks and exhale, then you pull over, turn your car off, and roll down your window. You lean your head on your thumb and forefinger and stare blankly at the wheel. The cop’s feet crunch against the gravel as he approaches.

You give him your license and registration when he asks for it, then hear the gravel crunching again as he walks back to his car. You look at the clock. Six minutes. Maybe he’ll just make it quick so you can get out of here. You hear the crunching.

“I noticed you were going 30 over,” he says in a serious, matter-of-fact tone. You take a deep breath and say nothing.

“Well,” he breaks the silence, “I’d like to congratulate you.” A frown. Congratulate? Is he being sarcastic? “I’d like to congratulate you because you could have been going 50 over, but you were only going 30 over. Not only that, but when I turned my lights on, you slowed down, turned your blinker on, and pulled over, when you could have hit the gas and started a high-speed chase.”

Wonder. Straighter posture, just a bit. What was he saying?

“You’re wearing your seat belt, and–oh,” he hands you back your license and registration, “your car is registered. You’re also driving with a valid licence.”

Now you turn your head and make eye contact, trying to put no expression on your face.

“And one more thing. I noticed that you were driving in your own lane the entire time.” You blink. He smiles–genuinely–and says, “So congratulations, sir. Driving in your own lane, wearing your seat belt, driving a registered car, having a valid driver’s licence, and only going 30 over instead of 50 over? Well, I’m going to let you go.”

“Really?” He could still playing some sarcastic game.

“Of course. You made the safer choice.” He walks away. You reach up with your right hand and turn the key.

The Pen that Refused to Work

There once was a man who had a job that required him to write things down by hand. He had a whole drawer full of pens and paper, and he usually didn’t think much about which pen he was using as long as the pen worked. Sometimes the man would pick up a pen and start writing with it, but the pen would not work. So he scribbled in little circles on the edge of a piece of paper in hopes that the pen would start working. It did, and the man was able to get on with his work.

But there was one pen that would not work, even when the man scribbled in little circles with it for quite some time. He would pick up the pen and start writing, and the first few letters would come out all right, but then the pen would suddenly stop working. The man went back to try to correct the letters, but the pen would still not work. So he scribbled in little circles with it. This worked with all the other pens, so why should it not work with this one? He scribbled and scribbled and the pen began working, but when he started to write with it, it would stop.

The man checked the ink level in the pen. The pen was full of ink, and the man could not understand why the pen would not work when he wanted it to.

So he scribbled in little circles and, again, the ink would begin to flow. But then it would stop. The man scribbled and scribbled for what seemed like a long time, but there was no change in the pen’s nature. Ink. No ink. Start. Stop. The pen’s ink would flow forth as if this time it was finally going to keep working. But then it would stop.

So the man, knowing that he had a whole drawer full of pens that would work and desiring to continue his labor, threw the pen away.

A Farmer and His Chickens, by Kenneth Burke

Once upon a time there was a farmer who had some chickens. Whenever he poured food into the chicken troughs, he would ring a bell and the chickens, hearing it, would come running. At the sound of the bell, the chickens knew it was time to eat, and they were hungry.

Months passed, and it eventually came time for the farmer and his family to eat the chickens. The farmer grabbed his gun and his ax and went out to the chicken coop. He also brought with him the bell. When the farmer got to the chicken coop he loaded his gun and rang the bell. Then the chickens came running.

The chickens were trained to believe that it was time to eat when the bell rang. But when the situation changed, they did not understand that the bell no longer signified that they would receive food–on the contrary, it now signified that they would become food. The chickens had been trained in a way that made them incapable to see things from another perspective.

So the chickens were killed, and the farmer and his family ate.

(This post is a retelling of an idea from Kenneth Burke’s Permanence and Change 7-10.)

Crossing a Crosswalk in the Rain

Ben had been running, and it was time to turn around and go home. He knew it was time for two reasons: first, he was tired, and second, he was drenched. He wasn’t drenched with sweat, however (at least, hopefully he didn’t sweat that much); he was drenched because it had been pouring down rain ever since he left his house. Ben wasn’t very cold though–his own movements had kept him warm, but he knew he didn’t want to stay out in the rain much longer, as exhilarating and liberating as running in the rain might be.

So he turned around and ran the other direction.

There were no other faces in the rain that day. Ben was the only person on the sidewalk, probably thanks to the downpour, and the only other traces of human beings were the cars, trucks, vans, and suburbans that came constantly up and down the 4-lane road. There was a variety of them, just like there would be in any other city. Their headlights illuminated the drops of water that fell from the sky, drops that were otherwise invisible unless you looked at the ground and saw their points of impact on the wet surfaces. But there were no faces. Ben tried to look through the windows of the passing cars. He wanted to catch a glimpse of another human being, another face. But he couldn’t see anything, or anyone, inside.

Ben knew he would need to cross the street in order to return home, but there were too many vehicles and no room or place for him to cross. Like a wall. He couldn’t just run across the road. If he did, his actions would cause some of these vehicles to slam on their brakes which would then get them rear-ended by the vehicles that drove behind them. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight, even if he didn’t get hit. No, he wouldn’t–couldn’t–just run across the road, even though that’s what he had done on his way down. It didn’t make sense; it wasn’t logical. Besides, there was a crosswalk up ahead. It wasn’t far, and he would get there soon enough. He would cross at the crosswalk.

Ben kept running. Rain landed on his cheeks and in his eyes when the wind blew, so sometimes he had to squint to see where he was stepping. Earlier, the rain would mix with his sweat and with the gel that he hadn’t washed out of his hair before he went running. Then the rain-gel-sweat would drip into his eyes and sting. But now there wasn’t really any gel left. Just water and sweat.

Ben was getting closer to the crosswalk.

There sure were a lot of cars. Endless, they seemed. Ben wondered why there were so many and where they were headed. He also wondered about the people, those faces that he couldn’t see but that he knew were still inside these vehicles, somewhere. He thought about how each face, each person was headed in a specific direction and towards a specific destination. Each also had a reason for being in his or her car at that particular time, and each had some idea of where he or she was going. Where exactly were they all going? What was on their agenda? How long would these cars stay on the same road together, and when would they part company without ever actually meeting, without ever actually seeing the face behind those other windshields?

Ben approached the crosswalk and slowed, letting his shoes slap against the sidewalk in a small puddle. It was one of those crosswalks that is not at an intersection, but that still has a button for pedestrians to push so they can safely cross. Unless the system is malfunctioning, the traffic light above the crosswalk is always green unless a pedestrian pushes the crosswalk button. Then it would turn red and stop traffic.

Ben was the only one around and wanted to cross the street. He pushed the button. It was one of those buttons that isn’t really a button but a slab of metal that you don’t really push–when your finger touches the metal, a little red light blinks and you hear a two short tones, a higher one followed by one that is less high. As is typical with these kind of crosswalks when they haven’t had a pedestrian in a while, the stoplights turn yellow and then red almost immediately. Those lights had to turn red in order for the pedestrian light to turn green. The masses had to stop so that the individual could cross.

Ben watched the stoplight change color. And as it turned to red, Ben saw the consequences of his act. It was a chain reaction. At first, a car in one lane kept driving, even though the light was red. But the other vehicles stopped at the red light. Then the vehicles behind them stopped, and so on, down as far as Ben could see in the rain. He looked through the windshield of the car in front and thought he saw the outline of a face that was distorted by the wet windshield. The wipers passed in front of the outline, yet the image didn’t get any clearer to Ben.

But the cars on both sides of the road had stopped–all of them. Or rather, he had stopped themIt didn’t matter what their destination was, why they were on the road, or even how late they were. They were not moving. It was almost as if Ben had stopped time and parted a sea of rubber, fiberglass, plastic, aluminum, and steel. But he wasn’t crossing on dry ground.

One small act of raising an arm and touching a metal pole to some degree changed this corner of the world–not just for Ben, but for every face in every vehicles, those faces that sat there waiting for a lone, soaking pedestrian to cross the street so he could go home.

Only then could they continue their journey to their respective destinations.