Friday, May 23, 2008

Taking the Harder Path

The other day I went over to the mercado and talked to my friend Cleo for a few minutes. Cleo sells crafts at the market, especially the painted feathers that he makes himself. A teenage fellow there told me that he wants to learn Hapkido. I told him, "Es dificil. Es mucho trabajo." (It's hard, a lot of work). I was trying to discourage him, I guess, but he said, "No importa" (It doesn't matter). I'm not sure I want to take a student at this point. I'll probably be gone in three months. I told him I'd consider it, but in reality I need to spend this time preparing for my move. I´m not looking forward to returning to California but my daughter is there, so my destiny must be there.

Then I went to the Minisuper Yin, one of the five Chinese-owned mini markets here in town, and bought a Hershey bar and a $10 phone card as it was a cuadruplica day (the value of the card is quadrupled), then came home, did my afternoon prayer, and then served myself some of Rosa's food from yesterday. It's quite good: corvina with vegetables, rice and lentils, and some sliced mango for dessert.

I got my food and sat down to watch a movie called, "Himalaya." It's about a village in the highlands of Nepal. Every year they take their yaks on a long, dangerous mountain journey to trade salt for grain. The chief is killed in an accident and they don't know who will lead them. The chief's father Tinle, who was chief himself long ago, insists that he will do it, even though he is old and has not led a caravan in a long time. Before they have to leave he goes to find his second son Norbu, who was sent to the monastery at the age of eight to be a monk. Tinle asks Norbu to come with the caravan. Norbu objects and says, "You sent me here to be a monk. I know nothing of mountains and yaks."

So Tinle decides to lead the caravan himself, even though the villagers have grave doubts. Just before he is to leave Norbu shows up. Norbu comes along and proves to be a big help, once he learns to tie a salt sack properly and to manage the yaks. At one point Tinle asks him, "Why did you decide to come?"

Norbu says, "My master told me, when two paths open before you, choose the harder one."

That's not common sense, but I believe there is a profound truth there. The harder path, the path of challenge, struggle and fear, is the one that allows you to grow as a human being.

Leaving my life in California and coming to Panama sight unseen was in many ways the harder path, but it has proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Leaving my job back in 2002 to work on my own business was hard, but now I have a steady income while many people have been laid off or seen their jobs outsourced. Leaving Panama again will also be difficult, but that is where the path leads.

Taking up Hapkido and almost never missing a class, and driving all the way to San Francisco on Saturdays for Master Jung's brutal classes (or Master Forrest's less brutal but still excellent sessions), was definitely the harder path. I was often bruised, and sometimes wanted so much just to skip class and rest... but I went.

Paul Graham wrote in "How to Make Wealth",
If you have two choices, choose the harder. If you’re trying to decide whether to go out running or sit home and watch TV, go running. Probably the reason this trick works so well is that when you have two choices and one is harder, the only reason you’re even considering the other is laziness. You know in the back of your mind what’s the right thing to do, and this trick merely forces you to acknowledge it.

Paul calls it a trick, but it's more than that. It's a discipline, a way of living a progressive life. I am also reminded of something from the Quran, in Surat Al-Balad (Chapter 90). Quoting from verse 8 on:
Did (God) not give him two eyes,
One tongue, and two lips,
And showed him two roads?
But he could not scale the steep ascent.
How will you comprehend
what the steep ascent is?
To free a neck
(from the burden of debt or servitude),
Or to feed in times of famine
the orphan near in relationship,
or the poor in distress;
And to be of those who believe,
and urge one another to persevere,
and urge upon each other to be kind.

So the path to Paradise (or heaven on earth) is the steep road, the one that many people refuse to climb. The hard path.

I suspect this is an essential principle of life. The easy way leads to comfortable mediocrity. To grow spiritually, or in strength, or even materially, or to build something meaningful that will outlast you, you have to take the harder path.

Consider some of the most famous figures in history: Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Sheikh ibn Taymiyyah, Galileo Galilei, Joan of Arc, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Marie Curie, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Mother Theresa, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr... all men and women who took extraordinarily difficult paths in life.

Not that I'm looking to go that extreme. I'll pass on the martyrdom route for now. I'd be satisfied with a happy medium, somewhere in between laying around on the sofa and giving up my life for civil rights. More towards the sofa end of the spectrum.

1 comment:

discipleman said...

Beautiful. I was also touched by the movie Himalaya. Your blog was very nice. Thanks, Paul.