The three questions – by Lev Tolstoy

Once a King thought that if he would always know the right time when to start any business, and if he would also know with whom he should and with whom should not deal with, and, most importantly, if he would always know which one of all the deeds is the most important, then he would not know a failure in anything.

And having thought so, the king announced around his kingdom that he will give great reward to the person who will teach him how to know the right time for every case, how to know what people are the most important, and how not to err in choosing which business of all is the most important. Learned people began coming to the king, but they all have different answers to his questions.

To the first question, some answered that, in order to know the right time for each case, it is necessary to make in ahead a schedule of day, month, year, and strictly adhere to what is scheduled. Only then, they said, any deal will be done in due time.

Others said that it is not possible to see in advance which case to do at what time, but need not be distracted with vain amusements and always pay attention to what is going on, and then do what is necessary.

A third group said that no matter how attentive you are to what is going on, no one person can always correctly decide at what time what to do, but need to have a council of wise men to decide: at what time to act.

A fourth group said that there are such cases that leave no time to decide: time or not time to start dealing with them. But in order to know this, it is necessary to know in ahead what’s going to happen. And only the Magi can know that. Therefore, in order to know the right time for every case, need to ask the Magi about that.

To the second question, the answers also varied.

Some said that the most necessary people to the king are his administrators, others said the priests, while others said the doctors, and others said that the most necessary of all people for the king are the warriors.

Just as different were the answers to the third question: what is the most important thing to do? Some told that the most important thing in the world is science, others said that the most important thing is the art of war, others said the most important is the worship of God.

All the answers were different, so the king did not agree with any of them and rewarded no one. But to learn the truer answers to his questions, he decided to ask the hermit, who was famous for his wisdom.

The hermit lived in the forest, never went out of it, and received only simple folks. And therefore the king dressed in simple clothes and, dismounting before he reached the hermit’s dwelling, he left his knights behind and went on alone.

The king found the hermit digging a garden in front of his hut. When he saw the king, the hermit greeted him and immediately returned to his digging. He was thin and frail, and each time he thrust his shovel into the ground and turned a little clod of earth, he breathed heavily.

The king approached him and said: “I came to you, wise hermit, to ask you to give me the answers to three questions: what time need to remember and not to miss, so not to regret later? what people are the most important, and therefore with what the people need to deal more and with what – less? and what are the most important pursuits and which one therefore has to be undertaken before others?

The hermit listened to the king but did not answer and spat in his hand and again started to dig the soil. “You have exhausted yourself,” the king said. “Give me the shovel, I’ll work instead of you.”

“Thanks,” said the hermit. He handed him the shovel and sat down on the ground.

After digging two beds, the king stopped and repeated his questions. The hermit did not answer, but got up and held out his hand for the shovel, saying: “Now you rest and I’ll work.”

But the king did not give him the shovel; he kept on digging. An hour passed, then another; the sun had begun to go over the trees when the king stuck the shovel into the ground and said:

“I came to you, wise man, for the answers to my questions. If you can’t answer, then tell me straight, and I’ll go home.”

“Here comes someone running,” said the hermit. “Let us see who it is.”

The king looked around and saw, indeed, a bearded man was running out of the woods. The man held his hands pressed to his stomach, and blood flowed from between his fingers. He ran up to the king and fell fainting to the ground, where he lay motionless, weakly moaning. The king and the hermit opened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his stomach. The king washed it as well as he could and bandaged it with his own handkerchief and the hermit’s towel; but the flow of blood did not subside. Again and again the king removed the bandage soaked with warm blood, washed it, and re-bandaged the wound. When the blood at last ceased flowing, the wounded man revived and asked for water. The king brought fresh water and gave him a drink.

Meanwhile the sun had set and it grew cool. The king, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut and laid him on the bed. He closed his eyes and grew still. The king was so tired from his walk and the work he had done that he lay down on the threshold and fell asleep. And he slept so soundly through the short summer night that when he woke up in the morning it was some time before he realized where he was and recalled the bearded stranger lying on the bed, who was now gazing intently at him with luminous eyes.

“Forgive me,” said the bearded man in a faint voice, when he saw that the king was awake and looking at him.

“I do not know you and have nothing to forgive you,” replied the king.

“You do not know me, but I know you. I am your enemy, and I swore to take vengeance on you for killing my brother and seizing my property. I knew you had come alone to see the hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But when the whole day passed and you did not return, I left my ambush to seek you out, and came upon your knights instead. They recognized me, fell upon me, and wounded me. I escaped from them, but I should have bled to death if you had not cared for my wound. I intended to kill you, and you have saved my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful slave, and bid my sons to do the same. Forgive me!”

The king was happy to be so easily reconciled with his enemy, and he not only forgave him but promised to return his property and send his own physician and servants to attend him.

Having taken leave of the wounded man, the king went out to look for the hermit. Before leaving him he wished for the last time to ask him to answer his questions. The hermit was on his knees in the yard sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before.

The king approached him and said: “For the last time, wise man, I ask you to answer my questions.”

“But you have already been answered,” said the hermit, squatting on his thin calves and looking up at the king who stood before him.

“How have I been answered?” asked the king.

If you had not have mercy of my weakness yesterday, have you not dug these beds for me, and if you would instead go back alone, that fellow would have attacked you, and you would have regretted that you did not stay with me.

Therefore, the most important time was when you were digging the beds; I was the most important person; and the most important pursuit was to do good to me.

And later, when that man came running to us, the most important time was when you were taking care of him, for if you had not bound up his wound, he would have died without having made peace with you; therefore he was the most important person, and what you did for him was the most important deed.

Remember then: the most important time is only Now; and it is the most important because it is the only time we have power over ourselves; and the most important person is with whom you are now, for no one can know whether or not he will ever have a deal with any other person; and the most important pursuit is to do good to him, since it is for that purpose alone that man is sent into this life.”


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