Sufi Story — The Storied Illusion of a Path

There was once a person who was so very willing to learn.

They felt sure that this willingness to learn would be sufficient to making their way through life. In fact, their willingness to learn was so strong, that its very intensity had them believing that it was the very key to fulfilling their life.

This Willing Learner decided to think up the best questions they could. Then they planned to go out and find the wisest person they could to learn from and ask those very questions. Their hope was that the wise person would tell them exactly how to answer those questions with their life and actions. Then, they thought, they would know exactly how to live their best life.

The best questions the Willing Learner thought up over time were two:

  • What should I do with my life?
  • And, what should my life look like when it turns out in a fulfilling way?

With these questions firmly in mind, the Willing Learner sought out the wisest person in their area. Oddly enough, that Wise Person refused to answer either question even though the Willing Learner had traveled far and had been giving those questions a great deal of thought. The Wise Person did, however, say something. He said that both questions were “deeply flawed.”

The Willing Learner remained undaunted. “Maybe the Wise Person was having a bad day?” they thought. They were sure that someone somewhere could tell them a story that held the keys to both what to do with their life, as well as for telling whether their life had turned out well. The Willing Lerner redoubled their commitment to find that person, that story, and those keys.

Now the Willing Learner spent the majority of their time asking after who could tell them the real story about what to do with their life and how to know if their life was fulfilled.

Sadly enough, only the Neighborhood Fool was foolhardy enough to attempt the requested story. Being a fool, he was undaunted by the questions and plunged ahead, making up the exciting and inspiring story as requested. He hoped to give the learner hope. He aspired to inspire the learner. And he gave it his best shot. (He also very much enjoyed the adulation of the Willing Learner as he told the story.)

The Neighborhood Fool said, “You are a very special person with a very special mission. The whole world will be different if you successfully carry out your mission. I hear that you like to learn. That must be your special talent. Go forth and learn all you can. Go forth and have all of the others around you learn to respect learning, and have them take on learning for themselves. Go make learning what life is all about. You will surely know that you are fulfilling your life when others say how learned and important you are. Now that you have your clear direction, go forth and fulfill it.”

The Willing Learner did indeed go forth bent on fulfilling his direction. He was glad to now be certain about what was his to do. And he did put his energy and actions behind his mission as it was foretold. He remained honest and true to this mission for many years.

But those years were extremely difficult. No matter how much he learned, there was always so much more revealed that he didn’t know. He felt like a phony. “Just when did someone become ‘learned’?” he wondered.

There were times where no matter how much he encouraged others to learn, many people simply didn’t seem to have the interest to make learning central to their lives, regardless of how much he tried selling its benefits.

The harder the Willing Learner worked at learning, the more he learned that the whole world was unlikely to alter profoundly based on what he was doing. He was failing to fulfill the story – his story — as he had been told it. And this failure wore deeply upon him. He struggled and he suffered.

After years of persistence in his struggles, he happened upon the original Wise Person who had both refused to answer his questions and had told him that they were badly formulated. After years of experience, and after falling short of his ideal even with good honest efforts, the Willing Learner thought that he might now be ready to find out something worthwhile and helpful from the Wise Person. He was open to listen and hear something new.

“Oh Wise Person,” the Willing Learner said, “Please tell me why I fail to fulfill my life story as foretold by the Fool, even after he answered my questions directly with a truly inspiring story about what I should do with my life and what my fulfilled life should look like.”

The Wise Person chuckled. “You didn’t want to trust me about your questions being badly formulated did you? You had to take the hard road. Well, maybe I can be of some value to you at this point.”

“First, to the questions,” the Wise Person said. “Your life “should” not be any particular way. Nor is there something you “should” do that you can say beforehand and have it hold up across a lifetime. Nor “should” your life look a particular way as was foretold in order to know that it is whole.”

“’Should’ is the hobgoblin of small and narrow minds who pompously assume that they know how all of life really ought to be. They weave it into fairy tales that separate them from their actual lives. They consistently blame their lack of satisfaction on others, or on circumstances, or on mysterious flaws in their psychology, or on history, or on political forces.”

“Now about that fairy tale you have been told and have indeed bought into as yours… it is both made up and a lie. There is no sense dedicating your life to fulfilling a story. The story comes after not before. And even then, the story is a lie – it cannot capture the richness of the relations and forces that all come into play in any human life.”

Our minds love stories. It is too bad our minds and lives aren’t as well-organized to love life and how it unfolds and works.”

“My advice is that you listen for what calls to you – what virtue or power seems to be first nature to you. Then, I suggest that you explore where that virtue or power can go in your life and in the lives of others around you. Enjoy the accomplishments that come from living that way, and learn from and develop from attempts to contribute that wind up falling short.”

“Sometime later you might find yourself telling a story in retrospect about what had something work out, or what had gotten you to where you are in life. Don’t fool yourself. The story is a fairy tale. It is a lie about how you got there. Everything you did and others did and life did had it turn out where it did. No one has time to say all that.”

“The story is shorthand, albeit with important things left out. Trying to follow a story is like trying to follow a moth-eaten map with most of the parts left out. Worse, it is trying to follow the map as if it were the territory itself. And worse than that, it is trying to follow a moth-eaten map of a different territory from a different time and different circumstance as lived by different people.”

Life seems to require improvisation and coordination more than it requires following a common sense story to a managed outcome. If people ask you for a story, you might consider spending more time finding out what their real question is. What are they looking to explore? From where are they starting? There may be more mileage and value in encouraging the exploration and finding a virtue or power that is relevant, than in feeding the demand to have an answer first in the form of an example or story. While the story makes you look worldly and accomplished, the awakening of a real engagement with life is satisfying over time for both of the people involved.”

“And when you are a grandparent, feel free to tell your grandchildren stories. Stories are for children, ideal for when they are sheltered and don’t have as much opportunity to go out independently and find out how life works. The stories give them ideas and entertainment. And somewhere along the line, pay attention for when it is the fitting moment to tell the story that ruins the illusion of stories as a path. Free your grandchildren to walk and explore and create a path and not be stuck thinking there is one they already should be walking that looks a particular way as foretold in a story they once heard.”

The Willing Learner got the point. He let go of any need for what “should” be. He let go of having to have a story to justify and shape his life. He took on exploring his deepest strength and went forth and lived. He lived wholeheartedly and without nagging doubts.

And it looked however it did.

About Ken Anbender

Kenneth Anbender Ph.D. has spent the last 50 years working with more than a hundred thousand people directly on the principles and methods that support the fulfillment of a human life -- in community and at work. He has developed a body of work that is licensable called The Contegrity Approach.
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