This evening, over a dinner reunion with a dear friend of mine, she confided to me that she did not consider herself to have been up to anything interesting lately.
As soon as I heard this, I objected because my friend most certainly has been up to a very many interesting things, and it is only a matter of clarifying what “interesting” truly means.
If you have ever had the delight of reading – or, even better, having read aloud to you – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry The Little Prince, you will remember the Little Prince’s reproach of the those grown ups who are ever concerned with matters of consequence:
“I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved any one. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day he says over and over, just like you: ‘I am busy with matters of consequence!’ And that makes him swell up with pride. But he is not a man–he is a mushroom!
The little prince was now white with rage.
“The flowers have been growing thorns for millions of years. For millions of years the sheep have been eating them just the same. And is it not a matter of consequence to try to understand why the flowers go to so much trouble to grow thorns which are never of any use to them? Is the warfare between the sheep and the flowers not important? Is this not of more consequence than a fat red-faced gentleman’s sums? And if I know–I, myself–one flower which is unique in the world, which grows nowhere but on my planet, but which one little sheep can destroy in a single bite some morning, without even noticing what he is doing–Oh! You think that is not important!”
This is a book that can chisel a splendid moral imagination out of a person’s heart of stone.
Figures and sums are not so interesting as the question about why flowers have thorns. The literary power makes it compelling, but do we take it to heart?
In another part of the book, there’s this gem of a paragraph that scrutinizes what is truly significant:
If I have told you these details about the asteroid, and made a note of its number for you, it is on account of the grown-ups and their ways. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, “What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?” Instead, they demand: “How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?” Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.
Our standards of significance shift when we consider what is essential in this light. The juxtaposition between items can so often bring us greater clarity.
A Rainer Maria Rilke short story begins with the following paragraph that connects very well:
A stranger wrote me a letter. The stranger wrote to me not about Europe, not about Moses, not about either the major or the minor prophets, nor about the emperor of Russia or about Czar Ivan the Terrible, his fearsome forefather. Not about the mayor or the neighbourhood shoe repairman, not about the nearby city nor about any distant city; nor were the woods full of deer that I get lost in every morning mentioned in his letter. He also told me nothing about his mother or his sisters, who are certainly long since married. Perhaps his mother is dead too–how can it be otherwise when I don’t find her mentioned anywhere in a letter four pages long? He places a far greater trust in me: he treats me like his brother, he tells me his troubles.
All those matters of consequence can seem very interesting at first. However, it is opening our souls to the troubles and thorns of life that we discover something truly consequential, something that matters even more.