An old friend told me a fable about a monk who was crossing a chasm on a wooden bridge that was intertwined with strawberry vine. As he was crossing the bridge, the boards beneath his feet gave way and he fell through, grabbing on at the last moment to one tenuous strand of rope barely attached to the bridge. His grasp was not good, and he considered his next step. He perhaps had the strength to make one good try to get a better hold and pull himself up. And then he saw just above his head a most perfect strawberry, just within reach, but to pluck it would require the last of his energy. With his last effort, he plucked the strawberry.
That story has stuck with me and I think about it often, and usually, when I feel like I am facing impossible odds. I was born with a lot of fight in me, born of people who do not give up, ever. Someone said of me once, “What is it about achieving the impossible that you can’t resist?” I was flabbergasted when she said this, because it sunk the proverbial nail with one deft blow – the allure of achieving what shouldn’t be possible has always been one of my greatest temptations. My metaphorical rickety bridge is not being realistic about limitations. Tell me I can’t and I’ll try harder.
With this kind of passion, however, comes a lot of failure. Yes, when more often than not, you can achieve something that shouldn’t be achievable, there is an indescribable thrill. It is really satisfying to accomplish something, especially if someone said you couldn’t. But sometimes, it is hybris to overreach. Finding that balance between good failures and bad successes is a challenge.
And so, about 20 years ago, I heard this story about this strawberry. I thought about how, if I were the monk, I would be fighting to live. I would be using my energy to make that effort, and I would pull myself up and live another day, for another strawberry, or die trying. I would sacrifice the sweetness of the strawberry for the small chance of success. Yes, the monk is foolish, I thought.
But here’s the truth. Sometimes, what is real is that you aren’t going to make it. Sometimes, what is real is, even if you do accomplish it, perhaps you shouldn’t have. Sometimes, what is real is, achieving five things instead of four meant doing all five half-assed, rather than achieving four (or three) really well. Sometimes, having the perfect strawberry would be better than salvation from the chasm.
I hope I never really find myself dangling from a bridge with a tentative hold on a rope. Given the opportunity, I’d still fight for the better hold and the chance to pull myself up, rather than being all zen about it and savoring a last moment of sweetness. I’d struggle, because that’s who I am. But I am grateful that John told me this story. It is good to contemplate the strawberry once in a while, and say to myself, you know, maybe accomplishing 3 impossible things is enough for this week.