Leo Tolstoy once wrote a short story about a king who was certain that if he knew the best time to act, the right people to do business with and the most important thing to do at all times, then he would never fail in any task that he took on.

He proclaimed to the kingdom that he would richly reward anyone who could give him the answers to each of these questions.

Many wise men came to him with proposed answers, but they all differed and the king wasn’t satisfied with any of them, so the reward went unclaimed.

Eventually, the king decided to seek out a hermit who was renowned for his unparalleled wisdom.

He knew that the wise hermit only met with common folk, so he dressed himself in ordinary clothes, left his bodyguards behind, dismounted from his royal horse and went to see him alone.

The king sat down with the hermit and asked his three questions:

  • When is the best time to act?
  • Who is the most important person?
  • What is the most important thing to do?

The hermit sat silently for a few moments, before getting up to dig some flower beds.

The king, seeing that the hermit was old and very frail, took over, shovelling dirt for hours.

He went to ask the wise man his questions again, but was interrupted by a man coming from the woods who was bleeding profusely from a wound in his stomach.

The wise man and the king took the bleeding man inside and looked after him.

The next morning, the injured man asked the king to forgive him.

The king was confused as he had never met this man before.

The injured man explained, “You may not know me, but I know you.  You had my brother executed and stole his property, so I swore to avenge his death.  I knew that you had gone to see the hermit, so I planned to ambush you on the way back.  However, when you took so long to return, I left my spot and came upon your bodyguards who recognised me and wounded me.  I managed to escape and would have bled to death if it hadn’t been for you.  Because you have saved my life, I now pledge allegiance to your throne and my family will serve you forever.  Please forgive me.”

The king not only forgave him, but he offered to have the royal doctors look after him and gave back the land that had been taken from his family.

At this point, the king went outside and saw the hermit sowing seeds in the garden beds that he had dug the night before.

He asked the wise man his three questions again and was surprised when the sage replied that his questions had already been answered.

“What do you mean?” asked the king.

“Haven’t you noticed?” replied the hermit. “If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, but had gone on your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have regretted not having stayed with me.  So the most important time was when you were digging the garden beds and I was the most important man and to help me was the most important thing to do.  Afterwards, when the man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not attended to his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you.  So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was the most important business.

“Remember then: there is only one time that is important – now!  It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.  The most important person is the person you are with, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with anyone else.  The most important thing to do is to do him good, for that gives purpose and meaning to your life.”

Act now, with the person you’re with and do him (or her) good.

It sounds like a great way to live to me.

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