Ever heard of the k.i.s.s. principle? Keep it simple, stupid, is how it’s usually read. I’m trying to avoid words that degrade or demean people. Ask me how that’s working out later. Anyway, simplicity. Sometimes it’s nice, and sometimes it’s annoying. I want to make a case for it because right now, there are many things in the world that are so far from simple that everyone feels exhausted. So here’s a story I love that I’ve used often in writings and speeches that is simple, yet meaningful.
There is an ancient Chinese parable about an old man who knew he would die soon. He wanted to know what Heaven and hell were like. He visited a wise man in his village to ask “Can you tell me what Heaven and hell are like?” The wise man led him down a strange path, deep into the countryside. Finally they came upon a large house with many rooms and went inside. Inside they found lots of people and many enormous tables with an incredible array of food. Then the old man noticed a strange thing, the people, all thin and hungry were holding chopsticks 12 feet long. They tried to feed themselves, but of course could not get the food to their mouths with such long chopsticks. The old man then said to the wise man “Now I know what hell looks like, will you please show me what Heaven looks like?” The wise man led him down the same path a little further until they came upon another large house similar to the first. They went inside and saw many people well fed and happy, they too had chopsticks 12 feet long. This puzzled the old man and he asked, “I see all of these people have 12 feet chopsticks too, yet they are well fed and happy, please explain this to me.The wise man replied, “in Heaven we feed each other.”
The message is clear, paradise cannot be achieved or maintained alone. We remember parables like this from many different sources of wisdom, including sacred texts because they are simple, yet speak to our humanity in powerful ways.
Last week I admitted something to some of my colleagues: I was not giving interfaith circles enough credit. I lambasted a conference I attended around interreligious dialogue for being too simple, too naive, for patting ourselves on the back when we’ve barely scratched the surface of what needs to be done. I feel silly for saying that today, for not lifting up the everyday miracles that we need now in this time of darkness and uncertainty.
As a scholar it’s my job to complicate concepts and ideas, to dig deeper into beliefs and convictions that many times we accept without further consideration. Yet- the story above reminds me that living in tension and accepting that the world is a complicated place can be a cop-out. How many times have I responded to someone calling me out with, “well, it’s complicated?” Simplicity is powerful and gives us footing. Does that mean we can congratulate ourselves and stop working for justice? Absolutely not. Witnessing milestones along the way pushes us further and allows us to build our teams. As the story shows us so clearly, Heaven and Hell don’t look so different. The difference is simple: in Heaven, we live in the exigency of others, just as we are needed.
PS: Shameless plug. I’m so honored to be part of the Trinity Foundation’s Boston Marathon Team and am asking for support from friends, family, and anyone who digs the mission. Check it out here: https://www.crowdrise.com/TrinityBoston2017/fundraiser/jemjebbia