Of mountains, clouds, and shoulders

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I once came across this ancient Indian parable-

It told of a good king who had done much for his kingdom. But he wasn’t satisfied merely to be remembered as a good king. He wanted his deeds immortalized so that future generations will learn about him and remember him forever. He went to look for the wisest man of the kingdom and asked him how he could achieve that dream. The wise man told him that a huge mountain exists so treacherous that only the bravest and greatest kings could climb. He was told that when he conquered the peak, he should inscribe his name and his deeds on it so as to be remembered for all eternity.

Without wasting another second, the king set off on the quest to conquer the mountain’s peak. A year later, he returned to the wise man, looking completely dejected. The wise man was curious. Was it because the king couldn’t find the mountain? “No,” the king replied.

Was it because he wasn’t brave and great enough to make it to the top?

No, came the answer. The king reached the summit despite nearly losing his life several times.

“Then what is it,” asked the wise man.

The king tearfully replied that when he finally reached the top, he couldn’t find any space left on the rock-face to inscribe his name, for on it were infinite numbers of inscriptions of all the great kings and monarchs who had ever existed. To make it worse, he had never even heard of many of these names before, regardless of their deeds.

I think this story speaks of  a fundamental truth – that no matter how great our deeds are, they are bound to be forgotten over time. No matter how durable a system or an entity we have built today, surely it will not last for all eternity. Like the Roman empire, everything decay and fade away eventually.

Which leads to the sobering question – why even try?

The latest film by the Wachowski brothers Cloud Atlas (which is based on a best-selling novel by David Mitchell) , although not really a response to the question, provides some answers. 

The film weaves six different stories set in different timelines together, and the story in the preceding timeline always has an impact on how the story further down the timeline – sometimes as far apart as a few centuries – develops. For example, a character’s comedic account of his escape from an old folk’s home – which was later novelized and then made into a film, became a source of inspiration for a character that lived a hundred years later to rebel against the totalitarian system she was under. This character then became worshipped as a goddess in the next story set a post-apocalyptic world, her words remembered as sacred instructions.

But what stands out more than the theme about the inter-dependency of every phenomenon and event is the central unifying force that drives the protagonists. Be it a desire to expose the illegal practices of an energy corporation, or undertaking a dangerous journey in exchange for the life of a loved one, these characters were driven by a motivation far greater than their ego.

I do not think I am overstating it by saying that the one common thing behind these different motivations is Love.

So how does this tie back to the Yoruba proverb at the start of this entry?

On the surface, it speaks of an obvious truth – that our current achievements are all dependent on those before us who have paved the way. This is in stark contrast to the prevailing ego-based thinking that one’s achievements is the sole result of one’s talents and willingness to work hard.

At the same time, if we look deeper, the saying isn’t just a call for humility. It’s a subtle reminder about our place in the grander scheme of things. How many of the names of those people whose shoulders we stand on do we remember?

I believe that anything that is done out of ego will eventually crumble into dust, but when something is done out of Love, even when names and deeds of the doers are forgotten, what still remains is Love. And it’s something that people remember and keep passing it down through the generations.

A character in Cloud Atlas who was eventually martyred at the end of her story had this to say:

“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future.”

Perhaps this is the reason why everyone has shoulders. We don’t just stand tall on the shoulders of others and bask in the sunlight at the top. We stand tall only to lend our shoulders to future generations to stand even taller.



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