A certain young man, through no fault of his own, had experienced a number of difficult setbacks in his business. These setbacks had resulted in the loss of money, status, friends, and, eventually, his wife. Eventually, he found himself all alone, with no place to live and no prospects for improving his situation.
Not knowing what else to do, the young man wrapped his very few possessions in a cloth and carried them with him on the road leading away from his town.
“Everything has gone against me,” he said. “I will spend the rest of my life in poverty and without companionship.”
It began to rain as soon as the young man started out, and he walked on muddy roads for two days until he reached the next village.
At the village outskirts, the clouds lifted and the sun peeked through. Laughter and merriment seemed to spill out of every door and window as he passed.
“Sounds like these people have everything they need,” the young man said bitterly.”It must be nice to be so fortunate.”
He kept walking and, when he reached what seemed to be the center of the village, saw a man standing int he road. The man noticed him and said, “Now here’s someone with a good story to share.”
“Oh, I certainly have a story,” the young man said. “But I doubt you’ll be wanting to hear it. The ending is not very happy.”
“Ah,” the man said nodding. “But how would you know? It doesn’t appear that you have yet reached the end.”
“I’m close enough,” the young man said. “And it’s only been bad news so far.”
“That sounds dire indeed,” the man said with mock seriousness. “But still, I think you should let me be the judge of good and bad and happy and sad. But where are my manners? I’m sure a weary traveler like you would like some refreshment.”
The young man could hardly refuse, as it had been more than a day since he had eaten or drunk anything. So he followed the man into a nearby home and ate and drank until he was completely sated.
“So friend,” the man said to him. “Surely you are now fortified enough to tell me your story.”
The young man, grateful for the unexpected hospitality, began to tell his story. He recounted his travails, misfortunes, losses, misery, and eventual shame and desperation. He left nothing out. In fact, because he was determined for the man to understand just how awful his life had been, he added details and embellished his suffering.
Much to the young man’s surprise, however, the man seemed neither shocked nor saddened by his story. Rather than nodding in commiseration, he actually smiled and laughed. This angered the young man and made him even more determined to share the depths of his bad fortune and misery. As a result, he added more details of suffering to his tale.
Finally, struggling to speak through what had become seemingly uncontrollable bursts of laughter, the man held up a hand.
“You must stop, friend. I can’t take any more. Honestly, I’m not sure how you are able to make it through such a joyful telling.”
“Joyful? What are you talking about? Weren’t you listening?”
“Indeed I was,” the man said, still chuckling.
“Then how can you laugh? How can you be so cheerful? I find nothing at all funny about my story.”
“I can see that,” the man said with a twinkle in his eye. “And I forget myself. You are a visitor to our village and unfamiliar with our ways. You see, we’ve learned a great secret, which has allowed us to be the happiest of people, entirely content with all about us.”
“What’s your secret?” the young man said with a hint of desperation. “Have you discovered a hidden treasure? A powerful magic? Eternal youth? And what does that have to do with you laughing at my situation.”
“My deepest apologies,” the man said. “I did not mean to offend you.”
“Tell me,” the young man insisted. “What is this secret that has brought so much happiness and laughter to your village?”
“Simply this,” the man said. “We have learned the truth that joy is in the ears that hear and not in the mouth that speaks.”
Hearing the secret, a wave of new understanding swept over the young man. He began replaying his story of failure and misery in his own thoughts, cataloging every travail, misfortune, loss, and feeling of misery, shame, and desperation. Before he made it very far into his story, he began to smile. Moments later, he broke out into laughter.
“And now,” the man said, “I see that you too have discovered the power of our as well,” the man said.
Each of us is in absolute control of how we choose to hear stories, how we filter their information, and how we respond to them.
(A tip of the cap to novelist Stephen Donaldson, who first introduced me to this philosophy via the giant Foamfollower in Lord Foul’s Bane, the first installment in his The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series.)