A reasonable amount of experience in life teaches us that we are often the source of the wrongs that fall upon our shoulders. This is not always true, of course; but even a short period of honest reflection will reveal to us, if we examine the details of things, that we might have handled some situations better than we in fact did. Learning does not take place without honest examination; and the first person who is in need of this honesty is ourselves.
The anecdote that follows illustrates this point with particular clarity. It is adapted from Ibn Muqaffa’s book of wisdom, Kalila and Dimna, a work I have referenced previously in these pages, and will certainly refer to again. Much like the collection of tales now known as the Thousand and One Nights, it has unfortunately been sanitized and marketed as a children’s book; but as the reader will quickly discover in the lines that follow, these stories are not for children’s ears at all. The reader may be assured that the original versions of these works of literature are, by modern standards, frequently graphic and unsettling. Wisdom was not sugar-coated in the old days to spare out sensibilities. But let us now turn to Ibn Muqaffa’s anecdote.
There was once a monk who had become the favorite of some sovereign. He received from his king a gift of a robe, which was of a very fine and lush material. One day a thief saw the monk with this robe, and determined to have it for himself. So he approached the monk, flattered him as a man of learning, and said he wanted to be instructed in arts of wisdom. The monk accepted this story, let the thief into his house, and thought no more of it. The thief, now able to carry out his theft, made off with the robe, much to the monk’s chagrin. So the monk decided to take to the road, and see if he could not find his robe in the surrounding area.
And as he was traveling along the road by horseback, he observed a curious incident. Two angry goats were fighting with each other, and each had wounded the bodies of the other. As this was happening, a fox was following behind the two of them, licking up the small quantities of blood on the ground that flowed from their wounds. When the two fighting goats became aware of this, they became incensed; they both attacked the fox with such ferocity that they killed him. The monk continued on his journey and eventually reached a small town. He could not find any inn to take him, but was able to secure lodging at the house of an older woman with a beautiful daughter. This old woman had a very beautiful young maid who worked for her; and, knowing the desires that resided in the hearts of men, she was willing to traffic in this young girl’s beauty for a price. The maid had recently fallen in love with a local man, however, and this man was determined to marry her. The old woman knew that this relationship would endanger her money-making enterprise, and so resolved to murder the young man.
The old woman’s plan was to kill him when he visited the maid. He came by the house to see the maid, and she plied him with intoxicating liquors; she then took a thin, hollow reed, and dipped it in poison powder, with the plan of blowing the powder into his ears as he slept. Unfortunately for her, she accidentally caught her breath, and inhaled suddenly; this reflex caused the poison to enter her mouth and go down her throat, killing her within minutes. The monk, who was staying at the house, learned of these happenings, and left the scene quickly.
The monk continued to travel. He then sought lodging with a shoemaker and his wife. Now it happened that the wife of this shoemaker had a secret affair going on, and she had confided her little secret to her friend, the wife of a surgeon. She told the surgeon’s wife to ask her lover to come to her house, since the shoemaker would be preoccupied with trying to accommodate the monk and render him hospitality. The lover arrived unwittingly at the house of the shoemaker, thinking he would be able to see his wife. But the cobbler came home unexpectedly, and was drunk; he guessed the reason for the man’s presence at his doorstep. The cobbler grew infuriated, found his wife, and tied her to a pillar in the residence. He then went to sleep, to allow the effects of his drunkenness to wear off.
The surgeon’s wife eventually showed up at the house, and found her friend, the shoemaker’s wife, tied up inside. The shoemaker’s wife begged her friend, the surgeon’s wife, to untie her and take her place, so that she could see her lover. If she would do this, she promised the surgeon’s wife she would return as quickly as possible; and the surgeon’s wife foolishly agreed to this scheme. Unfortunately, the shoemaker by now had awakened, and called out to the person he thought was his wife. When she did not answer him–for fear of revealing her identity–the cobbler grew enraged, seized a knife, and cut off her nose. Just about this time, the surgeon’s wife came back home, and found to her horror what violence had taken place. She did was she could for the surgeon’s wife, untying her and sending her home with a bandaged face.
She furiously condemned the shoemaker for his barbarous violence, but there was not much that could be done at this point. The maimed wife of the surgeon went back to her own residence, trying to think of some way to explain how this shocking misfortune had happened to her. When she made her injury clear to the household, everyone in the family blamed the surgeon, believing that he had cut off his wife’s nose in some fit of insane violence. The police arrived and hauled the innocent surgeon in front of a qadi (a judge), who interrogated him at great length. The qadi did not believe the surgeon’s protestations of innocence; in fact, he took a strong disliking to him. The surgeon’s wife tried to intervene, but the judge ordered that the surgeon, whom he believed guilty of domestic violence, should himself have his nose amputated.
Now this horrible injustice was on the verge of being performed, when our friend the monk suddenly arrived in court to explain the truth of what had happened. He spoke words to this effect: “O qadi, I have learned much in the past few days. I have seen how we are often the source of our own misfortunes. By God, let me tell you how I know this. I myself was robbed of my cloak, a valuable item that was given to me by the king. But it was my fault that this happened, for I let into my house a man of bad character and a thief. Later I witnessed the death of a fox. But it was the fox’s fault that he was killed; he should never have interfered in the fights of other parties. For this stupidity, he paid the price. Later I learned that an evil woman was killed by the murderous plan that she created for an innocent party. And finally, by God, let me say that it was not the surgeon who was responsible for the loss of his wife’s nose, but her own foolishness in changing places with a friend who did not deserve such a gesture. In such ways do we see how we are the authors of our own misfortune.”
This is the tale as related by Ibn Muqaffa. We probably know many people who are constantly looking to shift the blame for their bad luck on to the shoulders of others. A little bit of probing, however, will often reveal that they themselves created or nurtured the problem that now afflicts them. The correct way to handle misfortune, Ibn Muqaffa tells us, is first to reflect on our previously happy state, and try to find a way back to that state; second, we should try to find ways of making the most of our present circumstances that we enjoy now; and third, we must regulate our conduct carefully in the future, so that we do not miss any coming opportunities for improving ourselves.
This is what a responsible person does, of course. But we live in a world of deeply irresponsible people who are always looking to shift the blame for their circumstances on to the shoulders of others. Many of these people are so-called “leaders.” Ibn Muqaffa says this with regard to weak, foolish rulers who try to blame others for their incompetence:
The weakest king is he who occupies himself with trifles, without paying any regard to future events, and who like the furious elephant, giving himself up blindly to the guidance of his passions, never fails, if affairs through his own mismanagement or idle indifference go wrong, either to charge his people with treason, or his ministers with incapacity.
Of the truth of this statement, there can be no doubt.
Read more on the consequences of rash decisions in Sallust: