The art of distraction has been mastered by the people of our generation. We're constantly barraged by social media, our fast paced lives, and 1,000 opinions by graduates of Google University. This is not something we don't already know about ourselves, however, when we are face to face with a real human, why can it be so difficult to focus on authentic interaction?
The great Russian philosopher, Leo Tolstoy, wrote a short story published in 1885, entitled, "The Three Questions". It was later adapted into a children's story by Jon Muth and has since become a top contender, if not #1, with my list of favorite children's books. In Muth's version, a boy named Nikolai goes about asking his animal friends the following questions:
- When is the best time to do things?
- Who is the most important one?
- What is the right thing to do?
To the first question, his friends give him different answers, such as, "To know the best time to do things, one must plan in advance" and “You will know when to do things if you watch and pay close attention.”
His second question received answers acknowledging healers, those closest to Heaven, and rule makers.
When Nikolai asks, the third question, the answers include "fighting", "having fun all the time", and "flying".
Nikolai loves his friends, but is not satisfied with the answers. He seeks out a wise old tortoise (aptly named Leo) and proposes his questions to him. Leo does not answer as he is working hard and tiring himself digging in the garden. Nikolai takes over the digging and finishes right before a storm blows in. He hears a cry for help and ends up rescuing a baby panda bear. The next morning, he is disappointed because he feels his questions have not been answered, so he asks Leo one more time.
The old turtle replies,
“But your questions have been answered! Yesterday, if you had not stayed to help me dig my garden, you wouldn’t have heard the panda’s cries for help in the storm. Therefore, the most important time was the time you spent digging in the garden. The most important one at the moment was me, and the most important thing to do was to help me with my garden. Later, when you found the injured panda, the most important time was the time you spent mending her leg. The most important one was the panda. And the most important thing to do was to take care of her and make her safe."
The three questions are then answered with a short, yet powerful summary:
“Remember then, that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one whom is standing at your side.For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world."
It's an amazing story and Tolstoy's version is even more powerful while dealing with revenge and remorse.
Tolstoy's message has always been a guiding light for me. I try to live by it as a philosophy, like Harry's Code in Dexter (minus the serial killer part). Yet, even in this distracted society, I still have to make a conscious effort to put my phone away and be in the moment and it doesn't come easy and it doesn't always happen. I long for the day when it's natural, but I fear that it will become increasingly difficult the more technology advances and the world is at our finger tips.
As a mom of four children, I get quite caught up on the drudgery of the everyday and I covet adult interaction. But, if I can keep remembering that the most important one is always the one I am with, I can feel less guilt about a messy house or a takeout meal and just be present in the fleeting moment that is mothering small children.