I once had to be rescued by the Lebanese Red Cross, off the side of a mountain. As you do.
It was entirely my own fault. In the four hours I spent, alone and in the dark, waiting for the rescue team and listening to wolves howling in the hills around me, I had ample time to list all the ways it was entirely my own fault, and just how stupid I had been.
These days, I NEVER go walking without plenty of water, food and a survival blanket. Just in case.
Now I knew the rules of safe hillwalking before, but there’s nothing like spending four hours in the dark picturing your own death to fix something in your memory. Experience is how we make wisdom our own.
And there’s something else to be said for experiences you wouldn’t choose to repeat – you see that the things you fear are not as bad as you think, and you find ways to get through them. I’ve found that a reassuring thought in life.
It’s that idea that animates the following teasingly paradoxical story, one I was told many years ago, by Tim Sheppard, of Bristol. And it’s this idea that decided me when I was in two minds about doing the Tales from the River. So I’d like to tell this story along the Trent, to explain why I’m doing something so foolish, and I thought it should be the first story we feature on the site.
(See earlier blogpost for an explanation of what the project’s about, and the rest of this website for more details – such as they are in this early stage. This site will include stories, history, plans for the project, and once we are underway, all sorts of media we capture the journey with.)
Story: The Wise Woman and the good life
Many years ago, a young woman was looking ahead to her life, and wondering how it would be. She saw all the old people in her village and saw that some were happy, and some were sad and bitter.
She wondered, ‘How can I live a good and happy life? How do I know what my options are, and to make the right decisions?’ She found herself worrying away at this question, until one day, she could stand it no more. She threw down her apron and swore to travel to the far mountain, to consult the old wise woman who lived there.
She toiled up the mountain, to the wise woman’s hut. And there she presented her question:
‘Oh most venerated and wise of women, please honour my unworthy question with an answer, for it preoccupies and torments me. How do I live a good and happy life?’
The wise old woman puffed on her pipe, gazed into the middle distance and nodded.
‘A fair question at your age, I will answer. Good judgement. That’s the secret of a good and happy life. Acting with good judgement.’
Pleased to have her answer, the young woman headed off down the hill. But when she got home and told her mother what the old woman had said, she said,
‘But hang on, I don’t understand. How do you magically live your life with good judgement? If it was that easy, wouldn’t we be doing it already?’
The young woman realised her answer only led to more questions. She cursed to think she’d have to take her aching feet back up the mountain the next day, to ask this new question: ‘How do you get good judgement?’
So she clambered back up the mountain, and put a second question:
‘Oh wise woman, on my earlier visit you recommended the path of good judgement. How does a humble girl like myself, with much to learn, get good judgement?’
The wise old woman puffed on her pipe, and gazed into the fire. She sighed to herself, and nodded.
‘Experience, my dear, that’s only the way to get good judgement. ‘
Experience, righto, that made sense. The young woman set off down the mountain again, but before she even got to the bottom, she’d realised there was another question. How do you get experience?
She turned her weary feet around and headed back to the Wise Woman’s hut.
‘Old crone, I have another question and I’d quite like this to be the last one. I need to act with good judgement. To get good judgement I need experience. HOW, for pity’s sake, HOW do I get experience?’
The wise old woman puffed on her pipe, once more. She gazed as if she could see other times, and smiled a secret smile. She nodded.
‘I’m afraid the best way to get experience my dear, is bad judgement.’