As a man hopefully grows in experience and knowledge, he will begin to notice a curious thing. The knowledge that he continues to acquire, and the sights that he continues to see here and there, subtly redirect him back to where he first departed. It is almost as if some grand cosmic joke is at work. Now when I say we return to where we first started, I do not mean that we return as ignorant as when we first left. We have grown, matured, and become more complete; there is no going back to the old ways and old days. And yet, as knowledge grows, we begin to long for the places of our youth: the sights and sounds of our younger days, and the pleasant connections to eras past. Wisdom reduces all things to their essentials.
We see this sort of thing in travelers. They range about the world, and see many sights and places; and yet in the end they prefer to settle quietly in their own homelands. The more things they have seen, the more they realize that they belong home. Everything begins to look like everything else. Travelers grow tired of the endless inconveniences of travel. Sights, sounds, and smells blend into one sensory experience that has been experienced one time too many. You can see the fatigue, the world-weariness, in their faces. Perhaps there is such a thing as seeing too much. Plutarch was the intimate of famous men and emperors; and yet, in the end, he chose to settle in his hometown of Chaeronea. I believe he even became mayor of this town when he was advanced in years. When someone asked him why he preferred to live there, he said that he thought it was the place where he could do the most good. In his writings he ranged over the ages, and examined the lives of great men; yet this modest Platonist chose to remain in his provincial hometown.
As I write these paragraphs I am reminded of a fable by Ibn Muqaffa that will be my pleasure to tell. He says that there was once a religious man who always seemed to be granted what he asked for. One day, as he was sitting alone on the seashore, a bird flew by with a mouse in its claws. The bird–it was a bird of prey called a kite–dropped the mouse. The old man wrapped the mouse in a leaf and brought it home, thinking he might be able to keep it as a pet. Soon his intention changed. He desired that the mouse be changed into a girl, and for this he prayed. The prayer was granted. He presented the girl to his wife, and told her that the girl was his adopted daughter. He raised the girl to womanhood; and when she became mature, he told her that it was time for her to think of marrying. The choice of husband, he said, was hers.
The girl said she preferred a husband of great strength. The man said, “Maybe you would like to choose the sun.” So he spoke to the sun and said, “I have a young woman looking for a strong husband. Would you like to marry her?” The sun looked brightly down on the man and replied, “Maybe you should be looking at someone stronger than I, for my rays are not all-powerful. They are blocked by the cloud, who can prevent my light from reaching the earth.” So the old man then spoke to the clouds, and made the same proposal to them. But the clouds deferred also. They said, “Talk to the wind. He is stronger than us, for he has the power to push us all over the sky.” Then the old man spoke to the wind. The wind sent him to speak to the mountain, because the wind knew that the mountain could stand firm and fixed against the strongest gales that the wind could offer. Exasperated, the man finally spoke to the mountain. And the mountain said, “You should talk to the mouse, for the mouse must be stronger than I am, since I always have to offer the mouse a place to live in my crevasses.”
So the old man finally offered his daughter to the mouse. But the mouse replied that it would be impossible for him to marry her, since his little house would be too small for her. So after hearing this, the old man thought that it would simply be best to have his daughter changed back into her original form, a mouse. This wish he now made, and it was granted. His efforts had led him right back to where he first began.
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