Friday, January 28, 2011

Two Scholars (A Parable)

Once upon a time, two young men set out on life's journey. The both had the same goal: to become happy and wise. Their names were Carl and Neil.

They both enrolled in a legendary university. Both of them read every book known to man. Both of them paid careful attention in classes and they both heard every word the professors said. Carl would furiously take notes. Neil would sit quietly with fingers locked behind his head and listen, sometimes with a smile and sometimes with a grimace. From time to time Neil would speak in class, often challenging his teachers' opinions. All the while, Carl kept meticulous notes. When the class would laugh, Carl would look up, confused, and Neil would explain the joke.

Carl would get perfect scores on all of his tests. He could remember dates, theorems, quotations, plots and formulae. Neil would get Bs and Cs, usually, but his teachers would marvel at his ideas and his insights. They would lounge over coffee in book-cluttered offices and show his work to each other and marvel, lamenting his sloppy work habits, smiling sadly and shaking their heads. Still, they admitted, if he would pull things together, he could be a genius. "He's no Carl," some of them would say. "He has hasn't that drive."

The two men graduated from the university on the same day. They shook hands and parted ways with smiles and hugs.

Carl became a respected professor. At departmental parties, he made witty (he'd say "Wilde-esque") jokes and he amazed people with the breadth of his knowledge. He could tell people who had said a certain quotation first; who had invented what and when it had happened; what the critics had said about everything; how each philosopher saw the world . . . and he climbed the ladders of academia, becoming famous in his field. He won awards. When he stood among a crowd, Carl gathered praise like a magnet among iron shavings. He married one beautiful wife after another and became a university president. He was a wonder. He was rich and respected.  He was known.

Neil was never heard from again in the academic world. He would still read books, one after the other. After finishing each one, he would lie for hours with the book on his breast, thinking, until he would fall into windy dreams. For years, he walked the world, taking-in the things, currents and people around him. Neil never carried a camera. He would write about what he had seen in a little brown book, back in his house, but he never read what he wrote, except, one day, to his children. When he came upon a beautiful thing, his senses would flood and he would sometimes weep, sometimes laugh, sometimes break into a joyful run, yawping like a boy.

One day Neil met a woman no one else considered beautiful, and they fell in love. They had four children who never wore the best clothes. He had a job that didn't impress anyone, but people who met him would say, "He should be more. He should be famous. He must be lazy."

When Carl was dying, his scattered family flew in to say goodbye. Every child from every marriage came to Carl's big house. All of the children were respected professors or politicians or company heads. Carl had instilled in them the value of hard work. He had taught them to achieve.

Some of his former wives came, some did not. The service was standing-room-only. Delivering the eulogy, a colleague said: "Carl was the most educated man I ever met. He knew everything there was to know. He was the greatest academic mind of all time."

When Neil was dying, his children were already there. The girls looked like his wife -- to Neil, the most beautiful creatures he had ever seen -- and his sons looked like him (for this, he would always laughingly apologize). Around his bed, they talked and smiled, and they cried. Some of them read him things they had written. They listened to their favorite music and talked about memories. They even sang themselves into hilarity.

His oldest son spoke at Neil's funeral. There were spaces in the pews, but everyone there was crying.

"My dad," the son said to them all, "taught me to breathe. My dad taught me to see the light on the leaves. He showed me the glowing soul of music. He and my mother showed me the meaning of friendship and love every day. He taught me to see into the life of things; to weep, to laugh, to break into joyful runs under the arc of heaven and to yawp like a little boy. He was the greatest man I have ever known."


  1. This is probably one of the most moving pieces that I have ever read and easily one of my favorites. At an early age I made the decision that I'd rather live a life like Neil. I'd rather effect someone's life in such a way that they would so their gratification through love. I’d rather show people the beautiful things that are found in life rather than show them the facts. Believe me; I’ve had teachers say the very same things about me that were said about “Carl”. Sometimes other people think that this is foolish and lazy, but I think it can be equally challenging. Raising children is always an underrated task in the public’s eye; however, anyone who has children knows that it is never quite that easy. It’s almost like having another job just without a pay check. In fact, you are more often giving money because of your children than receiving money. Despite the hit in the finance department, any “wise” man knows that if you put time and love into your children, the rewards are far more rewarding than one can ever know. I’d take Neil’s life over Carl’s any day of the week. I love this article.

    Evan Ezbicki

  2. Thanks, Evan -- glad it meant something to you.

  3. This piece raised goosebumps on me like Frankenstein raised the dead.

    But, one note in the form of a question: Isn't the greatest of ideals to achieve balance between the hardworker's life and the worldwatcher's life? Both have some value, though I also attribute far more value to Neil's way of existence.

  4. Anonymous -- thanks. One can't get higher praise than goosebumps, as far as I'm concerned. Good question -- I do see Neil as balanced, though. He works very hard at his studies of the world, but not for acclaim. He does it for true understanding; understanding that he can use to make his life (and his kids' lives) more rich, in the real ways.

  5. Mr. Matt,
    Incredibly moving. This narrowly edges out your "I Dig" blog from a little while ago. Reading this I found three things happening. 1) I couldnt help but think about the beginning of "Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Bradbury, where he talks of the differences between Jim and Will. 2)I was absolutely ecstatic you used yawp in a blog post. Seriously how great of a movie was "The Dead Poet's Society?" A movie that kind of supports the point you are trying to make. Deliberate allusion?
    3) I'm somewhat misty eyed reading this. I always want to be a Neil, but I have to battle the Carlness in me. I hate to be vain, and to work hard at the expense of experiencing things. But maybe that's the point. To automatically achieve Neil isn't worth it. It's to know what you want and to get there. And that makes you the wise old man on the mountain, and the childlike spirit inside all of us reminding us that, while there is a Carlness in all of us, there is also a Neilness in all of us waiting to show us the unseen wonders of life. Thanks for all that you do.


  6. I have to admit that Papi made me read this...I'm new to Hats & Rabbits. ut, I'm glad I read it and enjoyed it very much. I think most people like to work hard and be recognized for their efforts, but not necessarily have fame. Apparently, Carl was an individual that got what he wanted out of life at the expense of not "having a life." While I believe in a work ethic, there is so much of life that can be found out of the classroom, book, etc. What a joy it is to enjoy a beautiful flower, the autumn leaves, the sound of the ocean, and in my case, even the joy of watching my dog chase snowflakes. While I enjoy learning and all it has to offer, the story hit the mark because the joys of life and the importance of family are priceless. I could die happy knowing I enjoyed God's gifts to the fullest and knowing I did the best I could for my family.

  7. Papi -- Glad you like this so much. The allusion, both by me and by the writers of Dead Poets is to Walt Whitman. He was a fan of the yawp.

    Anonymous -- Welcome to the site -- so glad you enjoyed this so much. I think your values are right in line with Neil's, though. Remember: he was a lifelong learner -- he just chose to channel what he learned into actual life instead of into the ivory tower of academics.

  8. The Neil in me loves to read your blog.

  9. The Neil in me loves to write it. Thanks, Beth -- it means a lot. You have plenty of Neil in you, methinks . . .