The old white sage, grizzled and frizzled in his gray hooded robe, sat cross-legged in front of the mouth of his cave, high above the treeline in the mountains, looking every bit like the stereotypical old white sage sitting cross-legged in front of his mountain cave.
He watched while the much younger man, looking every bit like the stereotypical much younger man climbing to the summit of the mountain to seek wisdom and enlightenment, strode, and occasionally clambered, up the last few hundred feet of the ascent. A thin green streak crossed the sage’s vision, as he remembered when he was young and strong enough to make that ascent that easily. Then he remembered how uneasy his mind was when he was that age, and acknowledged, for the thousandth time, that he was unwilling to make the trade.
The climber’s head popped over the edge of the ledge. His eyes met those of the sage. The sage braced himself for the inevitable formula. O great wise Guru …
Instead, the climber said “Hi.”
The sage nodded, slightly startled but showing nothing.
The climber hauled the rest of himself over the ledge, stood, swaying slightly (that last clamber had been harder than it looked) and staring down at the personage he’d come to see. “I suppose the first order of business is to find out if you speak English.”
“I suppose that the answer will depend on what you define as English. After all, Bernard Shaw did, apparently, speak of two peoples irredeemably separated by a common language. Would not a websearch have given you your answer?”
“By the time I thought of it, I was out of cell range. Anyway, we seem to understand each other well enough.”
“Most of those who come here have said so when they arrived. Far fewer, when they left. Please sit down, lest you sway once too often and find yourself back down at the bottom of the mountain. I would not have you discover that you’ve wasted your time quite so soon, or in that particular way. Among other things, it would be painful. Also, my neck would appreciate your courtesy. Speaking of pain.”
The young man looked about him, to make sure that the place he chose to sit was not primarily occupied by empty space. Then, he did sit, facing the sage, who radiated far more serenity than when he was having to crane his neck to retain eye contact with his visitor. For a time, neither spoke; the sage suddenly realized that his visitor was still trying to catch his breath. Some more of the greenness went away. Sensing his advantage, the sage spoke first.
“So, young man, you are here to ask me about the meaning of life?”
“Yes. I am the stereotypical young man climbing to the stereotypical mountaintop to ask the stereotypical question of the stereotypical wise mountaintop guru. And please, please don’t tell me that the answer is 42. Or 17. Those answers are so last century.”
“Douglas Adams is long dead. I am not. My answer, though, is not much longer than his, and is not intended to be humorously futile. It is this: “Serve others.”
The young man considered this in silence, and as he considered, his face registered progressively deeper disappointment. The sage observed this and, at length, challenged, “You do not like this answer?”
“I was hoping for something a little more, ah, personally fulfilling.”
“Then you have indeed wasted your time coming here.” The sage’s serene tone was tinged with a ‘for the thousandth time this week’ hue of frustration and resignation. “You do not seek the meaning of life, you seek the ME-ning of life. You seek to achieve the gratification of your own desires, while escaping the pain, and the consequences, of trampling on the desires, if not the persons, of others while you do so. This quest is indeed futile. It cannot be accomplished. Even if you manage to silence your own qualms, you cannot forever silence the mounting complaints, never mind the revolts, the revenge, of others.
“And why would you risk all that to amass things for yourself without regard to serving others? Sooner or later, you will die. As will I, as will each one of us. And when you die, you will cease. And all those things you have amassed will mean nothing to you, and can mean nothing to you. Because you are no more. All the mythologies of the world, including those three Middle Eastern fantasies whose ridiculous squabbles may yet destroy this world and everyone in it, try to tell you that you can retain some portion of this life in perpetuity, can claim some sort of reward for what you amassed in it. They are lies. Damned lies. Lies usually told by some Authority, so they can amass more authority and hold you in thrall to it. For their purposes, not for yours.”
“But why would anyone do otherwise?“, demanded the youth. “If this life is all the existence we get, and what we get in this life is all we get forever, then we may as well get all we can!”
“Because”, the sage replied, his serenity fully restored, “while the things you leave behind will mean nothing to you, they will mean something to others. Not only the things themselves, but the manner in which they were gotten. Did you leave money to bless those who follow after you, or debts to burden them? Did you leave enterprises behind? Do people rejoice in those enterprises, and strive to maintain them as you would have done, or do they curse them and try to purge them of their history, if indeed they do not destroy them and all the memories associated with them? Did people respect your opinion in council, and deem your behavior worthy of that respect, or did they think you a proper scion of a line of fathers who all bore the inscription ‘died of drink’ on their death certificates? If your son is happy and prosperous, is it because of the example you set, or despite it? All of these things are measures of your service, and how that service is remembered and valued. How many times have you heard it said of some persons who give gifts, ‘They’re only doing it to look good’? Those gifts don’t have meaning, they have ME-ning. And if they come to define those persons, then the persons become forgotten, or remembered as evil, and anyone bound to them by blood or association carries a heavy load. If you would prosper, and have those that follow after you have the best chance of prospering, authentically serve others.”
“Lucking fovely!”, the young man snorted.
“This is English?”, the sage inquired.
“This is me trying not to swear outright!”, his visitor retorted hotly. “For a young person, your definition of ‘service’ might as well be spelled S-L-A-V-E-R-Y. ‘Do your duty, young’un, without thought of reward, and maybe, at the end of the day, or at the end of your life, there may be a coin or two at the bottom of the box!’ I may as well sign up to be a pirate!”
“Precisely”, the sage replied, calmly.
“… whut?” Whatever response the young man expected from his outburst, this wasn’t it.
“There are reasons why the romantic image of pirates persists to the present day, in blatant disregard of the facts of who and what they were, and you have hit upon the main one. The pirate metaphorically represents the rebellion of those who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are not being served. You, whoever you are, whatever position in society you hold, are not uniquely held to the principle of service. All in society are so held. Chiefs in Polynesia and Melanesia understood this: in return for the service and adulation they received from their subjects, they would offer service to their subjects. If the chief received a mighty gift, his subjects would receive a portion. A substantial portion. Or that chief would cease to be a chief, either through internal rebellion or external conquest. The conquest of Jerusalem by the Neobabylonians, the defining event in Judaism and a key element in Christian theology, happened because the kings of Judah, seeking ME-ning in their own lives, no longer provided enough service to their subjects to hold their allegiance, and thereby no longer possessed the strength to stand against the invader. Facebook is a morass of communities, each against all, whose members feel that they are not being served. It has become the poster child for the dysfunction of social media, and the society that it reflects.
“When you serve, and you feel that your service is not being honored, that you are not receiving service in return, then, sooner or later, passively or actively, you will withdraw that service. And be entitled to do so.”
“And be entitled to be fired, and blacklisted. Thanks a pantload.” The disgust in the young man’s voice was palpable.
“Indeed. This is how empires fall. Personal, and political.” If the sage took notice of the jibe, his face and voice showed no sign.
“Well,” the young man scrambled to his feet, “I hope you’re not pinning the saving of any empires on me, because it’s not going to happen. I’m going to get mine, and if others are stupid enough to let the whole thing fall down, then I hope I get zapped quickly, because then I won’t care, now will I?”
“So it may be. Or not.” The sage’s tone was one of farewell.
“Right, then, goodbye.” The young man put his toes over the ledge, let himself slide down until only his hands and head showed. “Hey. Speaking of ‘getting mine.’ How the hell do you – any of you ‘guru’ types – get yours? I don’t see food, I don’t see water, I don’t even see or smell a latrine! It’s not like there’s a Starbucks on the next peak or nothing. How do you survive?”
The corners of the sage’s mouth turned up ever so slightly. In response, with a grunt, the young man’s head and hands vanished.
The sage sat motionless, watching the young man descend the mountain as he had watched him ascend it, until finally, as the setting sun reached the horizon, he disappeared behind a ridge. A shaft of light from that setting sun illuminated the interior of the sage’s cave. Seeing that, the sage arose and walked into the cave, all the way to the back, and pushed a small rock-grey button embedded in the wall. There was a buzzing sound, and a quick flash of light.
The sage stepped out of the transporter into the second floor hallway of a mansion in the Henderson neighborhood of Las Vegas, opposite the master bedroom. A butler awaited him.
“Welcome back, sir. Your clothes and shower toiletries are laid out per usual. Your guests from the Luxor will await your pleasure in the banquet hall at 7 this evening. There have been no matters arising today that the staff could not take care of. The tariff situation remains disquieting, but there is nothing to be done before tomorrow, you will be briefed at 0700.”
“Thank you, Rodrigo, you may go and attend to the banquet preparations. I will call if I need anything, otherwise I will see you at 7.”
“Very good, sir.”
The sage entered the master bedroom, saw that all was in order, including the pretty blonde trophy wife sitting on the bed. He kissed her on the cheek, said “I’ll do this job properly after I’ve had a chance to clean up”, and then strode to the window overlooking the entryway. A chauffeured Cadillac had just driven up to the porte cochère, the valet had opened one of the back doors and saluted the filthy beggar who emerged. That beggar then entered the valet’s office. On seeing this, the sage snatched a phone from the top of one of the dressers, punched a button. The beggar’s face appeared on the screen.
“Hey, yourself. Back in town in time for the Luxor party, huh? How’s the guru gig going? Dispense any enlightenment today?”
“Usual problems with the English language.”
“Two countries separated by a common language?”
“Yep. How about you?”
“No enlightenment dispensed, but a fair amount of charity received.” He held up a ratty bag that bulged with paper and rang with coin.
“More swag for the petty philanthropy fund. See you in your monkey suit at 7?”
“I’ll be there.”