A man was feeling troubled. His whole world seemed to be in turmoil. At one moment he felt he was falling apart, but soon after he found he was shutting off the world, and shutting down. He knew that neither response felt right, but he didn’t know what else to do.
He kept his troubles to himself, making sure it looked like he had it together, if anyone happened to be looking. He was pretty sure it was working, and no one had any idea that he’d go from falling apart to frozen stiff in the matter of hours. But somehow fooling everyone else didn’t seem to calm the disquiet inside him, and he was feeling more and more distraught and disconnected as the days passed.
He’d heard about a wise man who lived in a small old house by the lake, a place you could only reach by foot. When the day came that the troubled man could no longer sit still in his skin, he made the journey to the wise man, and knocked on the door.
The wise man opened the door and asked the man why he had come. The troubled man explained his situation. The wise man looked at the man, then closed his eyes, and was silent for awhile. Wait here, he said. He turned and walked away, but soon returned with a bucket, saying, “Go down to the lake, fill this with water, and bring it back to me.”
The troubled man did as he was told. When he returned, the wise man poured the water into three pots, which he placed over the fire.
The wise man then went down to his root cellar, and came up carrying a carrot. He set it on the counter next to the troubled man.
“Put this in the first pot,” he asked.
After the troubled man had done so, the wise man reached into a basket, pulled out a towel, and handed it gingerly to the troubled man, who, once it was in his hands, saw an egg tucked inside.
The wise man asked the troubled man to place the egg into the second pot, being careful to set it down gently so it wouldn’t break open.
Finally the wise man picked up a small white bag he’d tied at the top and handed it to the troubled man, asking him to place it in the third pot.
While the pots of water boiled, they sat, the troubled man talking, the wise man listening, both watching the fire. After thirty minutes had passed, the wise man used wooden tongs to remove the items from the pots, placing each on a separate plate.
“What do you see?” the wise man asked.
“A carrot, and egg, and a wet bag,” the troubled man replied.
“How do they feel?” the wise man asked.
The troubled man looked at him with a puzzled expression.
“Get closer and touch them,” the wise man said.
The troubled man picked up the carrot, and found it easily fell apart.
“The carrot is soft,” he said.
“What about the egg?” the wise man asked.
The troubled man picked up the egg.
“I’m not sure,” he said, “it feels heavy, I suppose.”
The wise man asked the troubled man to crack and break open the egg.
The troubled man did as he was told, touched the inside of the egg, and said, “The egg is hard. The center is crumbling.”
“And the bag?” the wise man asked.
“The bag looks about the same,” the troubled man said, “but it is all wet.”
The wise man picked up the pot the bag had been in, and poured the water into two ceramic mugs, handing one mug to his visitor. The water was fragrant and the color of honey. The wise man took a sip, and gestured for the troubled man to do the same.
“Tea,” the troubled man said with a small smile.
“All three of these things—the carrot, the egg, and the bag of tea—faced the same adversity,” the wise man began. “The carrot started out cool, firm and tough, and could have stayed that way for a long time. But once it was placed on the fire, it became soft and weak, and fell apart under the slightest pressure. The egg came from the hens out back. Earlier today, the egg was flexible and fluid, and contained the potential for new life. The egg was delicate, and so had a protective shell as it should, but once placed over the fire, the egg hardened on the inside, too, to its very core. The tea, though, was unique—the tea changed the water.
“You have the same choice whenever you are faced with unavoidable adversity,” he explained. “You can become weak and fall apart, you can allow yourself to harden, and stifle the life inside you…or you can share the best of what you have to give, release what you have inside you, and transform the situation for the better.
“In our place and time,” the wise man continued, “there is a lot of talk of resilience in the face of adversity. But many among us are mistaken as to what resilience means, and what it looks like. Many people believe that if we avoid ending up like the carrot—and keep ourselves from falling apart under pressure—then we are resilient. As long as we stay intact, they believe, we are doing well.
“But people can only see one another’s surfaces…we cannot see what is going on inside, and inside at our core is where the life of us lives. To many of our neighbors, the egg would represent the epitome of resilience, as the egg remained intact, and some would argue, became stronger. You probably hear these messages all of the time in our culture, things like just power through, suck it up, or fake it until you make it. From the outside, only looking at the shell, anyone would believe that the egg was doing just fine, and had made it through the fire unscathed. But the inside of the egg shows a different story—the inside of the egg has lost the essence of what it was—it has lost its clarity, its fluidity, and any potential for growth it once held. It has grown harder, yes, but that which is hard can still be broken.
“The tea represents true resilience. If you were to take the tea leaves out of the bag earlier, you could see that they were thin and brittle. But after being immersed in the hot water, the tea leaves expanded and grew more flexible. And this is what you will find in your own life. The more that you strive to be like the tea leaves and release what you have within you for the betterment of the whole, the better off you will be, the stronger and more flexible you will be, and the less brittle and breakable you will be. This isn’t always something that others can see—this may be something that you alone will know, or only those who are close enough to see inside you. Just like you saw the tea bag was all wet, people may believe that you are completely wrong, and that this kind of behavior will leave you depleted—people may see you as “all wet” in this way, too.
“The carrot, the egg, and tea all look about the same from the outside, before and after the hot water. The skin, the shell, and the bag at first are all intact. The egg and carrot hid what happened inside of them, until you dig deeper. But the tea reveals itself by what it has shared— by extending itself it has somehow made more beautiful the very circumstance that had caused it pain.”
The troubled man smiled and stood, and reached out to shake the wise man’s hand. But the wise man continued.
“Adversities in life come in all kinds—necessary and the unnecessary, the avoidable and the unavoidable. The lesson here is for unavoidable adversities. The fact that you have traveled all this way to see me, and in light of what you told me, I believe that you believe your troubles are of the unavoidable kind. Neither you, nor I, nor anyone else can tell you if they are necessary or will be beneficial in the long run—if they are setting you up to be stronger and more flexible and to expand your potential for facing a greater adversity or opportunity later on.
“But since you believe your troubles are unavoidable, and since you know your situation better than I do, I have shared with you this story. Take tonight to think about this story, and how you might be responding like the egg or the carrot—closing yourself off or falling apart. Think about how you might transform yourself into the tea, and change the situation using the best of what you have inside you. How might you change the situation for the better, and how might making that change make you better?
“From where I sit, I cannot know whether your situation was unavoidable. Tomorrow, please also take time to think about the adversities you now face, and if any of them could have been avoided by using a little foresight, or by living or behaving differently. If you come to realize that you could have avoided your troubles, I want you to think about why you allowed yourself to come this far down the road you are on. When you have thought these through, come back and see me another day, and I will share another story.”
The troubled man nodded and began to walk out the door. The wise man handed him a folded piece of paper, and asked him to read it on the way home.
The troubled man walked down to the lake, and sat down on the dock, prepared to read a long letter. Instead he found three simple quotes.
But do your thing and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. ~Emerson
For the secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for. ~Dostoyevsky
We know what we are, not what we may become. ~Shakespeare
The troubled man stood up and started the long walk home.
Notes and some references:
This is an adaptation and expansion of a story that has been told by a number of different people, in a number of different ways–sometimes it is called Carrots, Eggs, and Tea, sometimes, Carrots, Eggs and Coffee Beans. Much of the first portion of this post is my adaptation of that story. Most of the text after “In our place in time” is mine.
Like so many stories we have, this one reveals a timeless truth that is now beginning to be revealed through science. After reading this, a friend and colleague wrote to me:
I was recently viewing some videos about stress and health. It is interesting. It is not necessarily that stress creates health problems, but it is our response to stress. And, in some cases, when stress is tied to “meaning” in life, it could actually be helpful from a health perspective. There is a good Ted Talk on this…it is based on some studies that looked at health outcomes and stress. The lesson is that the most important thing is to have “meaning” in what you do — then the stress doesn’t feel like stress, but feels different.
[If] I look at my work less as “stress” and more as “service”…I might still get the same physical stress signals as before (heart racing, adrenaline increasing), but because it is for a greater good (meaning), studies show that it won’t have the detrimental long-term health effects, and actually may be good.
This reminded me of a couple of things on similar topics. One was a passage from a book called Social Causes of Psychological Distress (p.13):
“It is not the change itself, or even undesirable change, that is most important. Two critical factors largely determine the psychological impact of life events: (1) the conditions that produce the events and follow from them; and (2) an active and instrumental response to the events, rather than a passive and fatalistic one. These, more than the events themselves, account for the social patterns of distress.”
Another was the classic book Man’s Search For Meaning. The author, Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and survivor of concentration camps during the Holocaust, who developed a theory on well-being based on purpose, meaning, and doing our best in the midst of unavoidable suffering. To him, we derive meaning from three things: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of adversity and suffering. Here is a quote:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I need to do some work to reference more research and incorporate it here, but I thought I would share this for now. In the meantime, if you are familiar with the TED talk referenced above (or any similar research or even personal stories), please send it along.
For next time, I hope to follow up with another story about hot water from the wise man to the troubled man.