I found a Rumi parable the other day that reminded me of the Greek story of the Sword of Damocles. Both have to do with envy, and speak to the need for intellectual courage in asking questions and checking our assumptions – especially when we are comparing ourselves to others. Here are both stories. I’ve told K. the story of the Sword of Damocles, but now I also have the Water Seller’s Donkey to share with her. If you want to share these with your child, feel free to tell them in your own words – as you’ll see, they aren’t long, and won’t be hard to learn.
A poor water seller had a donkey who carried the heavy jugs of water, and it was weary work; the donkey was always hungry and tired, and his hooves ached. One day, the sultan’s groom crossed paths with the water seller, and asked, “Why is this beast so thin?”
“I’m a poor man,” the water seller replied. “I do my best for him.”
“Let him come to the sultan’s stables for a rest,” said the groom.
The donkey was astonished to see the splendor of the stables. There, the fine Arabian warhorses were groomed every day until their coats shone; they had sweet hay and barley to eat; their stalls were cushioned with fine soft sand.
“Why do I have such a hard life!” the donkey complained. “And you have the finest of everything?”
Just then, trumpets sounded, and a cry went up that war was declared. The horses were saddled up and led out of the stables amid great clamor and excitement. Naturally, the donkey remained behind, munching hay and feeling sorry for himself.
It wasn’t until later, when the horses returned – wounded and bleeding, many of them dying of spear thrusts and arrows – that the donkey began to think differently.
And here, The Sword of Damocles:
In ancient times there was a powerful king, and among his courtiers was a flatterer named Damocles. Damocles never left off praising the king and heaping on lavish compliments, until one day, growing weary of this flattery, the king said, “If you truly believe I am so fortunate and blessed, perhaps you’d like to trade places with me tomorrow?”
Of course Damocles eagerly accepted the offer. The next morning, he took the greatest delight in putting on the fine clothes brought to him by servants, and eating from golden plates and drinking from jeweled cups. He admired the golden ring of kingship on his finger, and he looked forward with great eagerness for the moment when he would sit upon the throne. He ordered silken carpets to be laid on the steps, and mounted to the throne with a thrill. Just as he took the seat, however, he happened to glance upward, and the thrill turned to a chill of terror. Above the throne hung a sword, point down – and it was hanging by a single hair from a horse’s tail wrapped around the hilt!
“What’s the meaning of this?” he gasped, faint with dread.
The king walked in, smiling at Damocles’s confusion. “Did you think being king was nothing but luxury? At any moment, everything can change.”
Damocles stepped away from the throne, and took off the king’s ring. “I no longer wish to trade places with you.”