Came across the following parable in my wanderings around the web recently...
We flew to Athens and took a five-hour train ride to Litochoro, a town at the foot of the mountain. At sunrise the next day, we set off on a trail that Greeks have used for thousands of years to seek communion with their gods. We hiked for six hours up a steep and winding path. At noon we came to a fork in the path where a sign said Misoponos, with an arrow pointing to the right. The main path, off to the left, looked forbidding: it went straight up a narrow ravine, with an e ver-present danger of rockslides.
The path to Misoponos, in contrast, was smooth, level, and easy—a welome change. It took us through a pleasant grove of pine and fir trees,
across a strong wooden pedestrian bridge over a deep ravine, and right to the mouth of a large cave.
Inside the cave we saw a strange scene. Misoponos and his assistants had installed one of those take‑a‑number systems that you sometimes find
in sandwich shops, and there was a line of other seekers ahead of us. We took a number, paid the 100 euro fee to have a private audience with the great man, performed the mandatory rituals of purification, and waited.
When our turn came, we were ushered into a dimly lit chamber at the back of the cave, where a small spring of water bubbled out from a rock wall and splashed down into a large white marble bowl somewhat reminiscent of a birdbath. Next to the bowl, Misoponos sat in a comfortable chair that appeared to be a Barcalounger recliner from the 1970s. We had heard that he spoke English, but we were taken aback when he greeted us in perfect American English with a hint of Long Island: “Come on in, guys. Tell me what you seek.”
Jon spoke first: “O Wise Oracle, we have come seeking wisdom. What are the deepest and greatest of truths?”
Greg thought we should be more specific, so he added, “Actually, we’re writing a book about wisdom for teenagers, young adults, parents, and educators, and we were kind of hoping that you could boil down your insights into some pithy axioms, ideally three of them, which, if followed, would lead young people to develop wisdom over the course of their lives.” Misoponos sat silently with his eyes closed for about two minutes. Finally, he opened his eyes and spoke.
“This fountain is the Spring of Koalemos. Koalemos was a Greek god of wisdom who is not as well-known today as Athena, who gets far too much
press, in my opinion. But Koalemos has some really good stuff, too, if you ask me. Which you just did. So let me tell you. I will give you three cups of
He filled a small alabaster cup from the water bowl and handed it to us. We both drank from it and handed it back.
“This is the first truth,” he said: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. So avoid pain, avoid discomfort, avoid all potentially bad experiences.”
Jon was surprised. He had written a book called The Happiness Hypothesis, which examined ancient wisdom in light of modern psychology. The
book devoted an entire chapter to testing the opposite of the oracle’s claim, which was most famously stated by Friedrich Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill
me makes me stronger.”1 Jon thought there must be some mistake. “Excuse me, Your Holiness,” he said, “but did you really mean to say ‘weaker’? Be-
cause I’ve got quotes from many wisdom traditions saying that pain, setbacks, and even traumatic experiences can make people stronger.”
“Did I say ‘weaker’?” asked Misoponos. “Wait a minute . . . is it weaker or stronger?” He squeezed his eyes shut as he thought about it, and then opened his eyes and said, “Yes, I’m right, weaker is what I meant. Bad experiences are terrible, who would want one? Did you travel all this way to have a bad experience? Of course not. And pain? So many oracles in these mountains sit on the ground twelve hours a day, and what does it get them? Circulation problems and lower-back pain. How much wisdom can you dispense when you’re thinking about your aches and pains all the time? That’s why I got this chair twenty years ago. Why shouldn’t I be comfortable?” With clear irritation in his voice, he added, “Can I finish?”
“I’m sorry,” said Jon meekly.
Misoponos filled the cup again. We drank it. “Second,” he continued: “Always trust your feelings. Never question them.”
Now it was Greg’s turn to recoil. He had spent years practicing cognitive behavioral therapy, which is based on exactly the opposite advice: feelings so often mislead us that you can’t achieve mental health until you learn to question them and free yourself from some common distortions of reality. But having learned to control his immediate negative reactions, he bit his tongue and said nothing.
Misoponos refilled the cup, and we drank again. “Third: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”
We looked at each other in disbelief. Greg could no longer keep quiet: “O Great Oracle of Koalemos,” he began, haltingly, “can you explain that one to us?”
“Some people are good,” Misoponos said slowly and loudly, as if he thought we hadn’t heard him, “and some people are bad.” He looked at us pointedly and took a breath. “There is so much evil in the world. Where does it come from?” He paused as if expecting us to answer. We were speechless. “From evil people!” he said, clearly exasperated. “It is up to you and the rest of the good people in the world to fight them. You must be warriors for virtue and goodness. You can see how bad and wrong some people are. You must call them out! Assemble a coalition of the righteous, and shame the evil ones until they change their ways.”
Jon asked, “But don’t they think the same about us? How can we know that it is we who are right and they who are wrong?”
Misoponos responded tartly, “Have you learned nothing from me today? Trust your feelings. Do you feel that you are right? Or do you feel that you are wrong? I feel that this interview is over. Get out.”