[I first posted the story below in August 2015. It seems to me to deserve a repetition, especially given how many people I’ve encountered recently who talk about nothing but their woes. It comes in many variations, so you might have heard it somewhat differently on another occasion. – FWP]
They were a race of great power, numerous and capable. They built high, delved deeply, and ranged far. Their history encompassed many centuries of proliferation and advancement. Their future appeared as unbounded as the universe. Yet they were not happy.
They quarreled ceaselessly, both among themselves and with those of other lands. Every household knew stress and strife; every polity teetered forever on the brink of collapse. Nothing they achieved, singly or in groups, brought the smallest balm to their souls.
Which is why the discovery of the scroll captured the attention of all their world.
It was aged and brittle. Their archeologists unrolled it with great delicacy, lest the message it bore across the centuries be fragmented and destroyed. When it was open at last, they found that it was written in a tongue that had not been used since the earliest era of their existence. When their paleolinguists succeeded in translating it, they were astonished, for its very first line it promised them that the secret to happiness lay within it. Yet the translation revealed nothing such.
The last line appeared to be meaningless, merely a string of scribbles. A myriad of scholars argued fiercely over the translation, each one certain that his interpretation was correct and that all his colleagues were wrong. But none of them could say that he had divined the secret to happiness that the scroll promised on its very first line.
No one could make out the significance of the scribbles on the last line.
One of the paleolinguists had a young daughter, a girl of surpassing sweetness and grace. All who knew her spoke glowingly of her. All who met her, no matter how brief the encounter, thought frequently of her afterward, always with pleasure. Though her family was not materially wealthy, she asked for nothing and begrudged nothing to others. In all their world she seemed the only truly happy person.
A day came when the girl’s father was puzzling over his copy of the scroll, on which he’d included the mysterious scribbles at the end. He’d left the door to his study open, and his daughter ventured hesitantly through it.
“What are you working on, Father?” she said.
He smiled and stroked her hair. “A copy of an ancient text. It claims to hold the secret to happiness, but neither I nor any of my colleagues can discern what that might be.” He sighed. “We could surely benefit from such a great wisdom.”
The girl peered at the copy, squinted briefly, and said. “But it’s right there, on the last line.”
“What?” her father exclaimed. He was immediately consumed with fury and suspicion, made all the more piercing by his fear that she might indeed have penetrated the mystery. “How is it,” he said angrily, “that you believe you can find what I and so many others of great erudition have missed over years of study?”
The girl was unaffected by his tone or the storminess of his countenance. She took a pencil and a sheet of paper from his desk, smiled up at him, and said only “Watch.”
First she copied the scribbled last line exactly as it appeared on the text in her father’s hands. When she was certain she had made an exact copy, she did something both old and new…something no scholar had thought to do before her: She assembled the individual fragments of the last line, superimposing them with care, until they resolved into a single picture.
It was an ideogram.
When she had completed her task, she set down the pencil, handed the sheet of paper to her father, and smiled. With a single glance he knew at once that she had glimpsed what he and innumerable others had failed to see. The ideogram expressed a single word in that ancient tongue, a word almost never used among them.
“You see?” she said. “It was right there all along.”
As her father surrendered to tears of inexpressible joy, she curtsied and went from the room.
Clasp it ever to your breast.
Clutch it the more fiercely in times of sorrow.
Share it with others, for it is not diminished by being shared.
May God bless and keep you all.