Envying something that didn’t exist

This is a recent story of two students in a provincial town in Iran:

The new government of the Shah was looking for young talent to promote into government and sent a minister to the provincial towns in order to recruit the brightest. Two very promising students had done exceptionally well and the minister was going to interview both of them, but he had only a day in the town and one of the students suddenly went down with an acute illness. Only one of them was therefore interviewed, and that one was taken to the capital to begin his new life.

For the one who went down with the illness, it was just bad luck. He was left behind. He wrote in his account many years later that he felt bitter, but made the best of it. He got on with his life and became a prominent man in the provincial town. And he did a certain amount of good, but. . ! He also followed his friend’s career in its early stages as he was moved up under the minister’s patronage, until he disappeared above the clouds, so to speak. He knew his former friend must have got some cracking job in the new government under the successful minister. In spite of the successes that he had and the service he knew he was doing, all his life he had the feeling that, if only he hadn’t been ill, the minister would have taken them both and he too would have had a chance.

He had lost touch with his friend early on. Thirty years later he had to visit an official in the capital. Arriving unexpectedly early he thought he would get a haircut. Near the ministry there was a street of little shops, so he dropped in at the barber there. A very shabbily dressed man came in whom he seemed to recognize. When he looked hard he realized it was his friend, his former fellow student. ‘What has happened to you?’ he asked. His friend said, ‘I did do well at the beginning, but then the minister made a mistake and would not admit to it. Someone had to be sacrificed and I was sacked. They found me a job as a clerk and they told me not to make a fuss or I might find myself in prison.’

So he had spent his life in the capital as a lowly clerk. His friend promised him a better job in the provincial capital on his return.

He wrote, ‘I realized then that I had spent thirty years of my life envying something that didn’t exist.’ Despite all his successes in the provincial town there was always the thought, ‘If only I could have gone with my friend to share his success in the capital.’ But the success of his friend didn’t exist; it was unreal. He wrote, ‘My life was poisoned by envy of something that I had imagined.’

Regret from the Old Zen Master

© Trevor Leggett

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