Knowing when enough is enough is a precious skill

We live in a society where “fixing” things is the norm. Despite the common saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” people are constantly striving to fix things that either don’t need fixing or are beyond help. People constantly try to “fix” their businesses, their careers, their lives—and especially other people. What is worst of all, they try to deal with the problems caused by one “fix” by adding another.

Let me share a story with you about exactly this problem.

Many centuries ago, a famous teacher lived high in the mountains of China, above a remote and poor village. Important people came to seek his advice, traveling hundreds of miles over barren lands to reach his small cottage.

The villagers were proud of their revered neighbor, so when he became old and found it hard to look after himself, they decided to send him one of the young people of the village as a servant. One after another, all the young men were sent, but each was rejected as too noisy, too clumsy, too stupid, too cheeky, or too lazy. It was a hard blow for their families when they came back to the village. The shame was keenly felt.

Eventually, only one family was left, and they had no sons. Their youngest daughter was unmarried and available, so she it was who had go, with strict instructions that she must, for the sake of the family’s honor and her own, do everything in her power to please the old teacher.

As soon as she arrived, she started sweeping the teacher’s house as vigorously as she knew how. But the teacher coughed and sneezed at all the dust and crossly told her to stop at once.

Next she began to dust and tidy.

“Sit still,” the teacher said. “How can I read—or even think—when you are distracting me like that?”

The frightened girl decided to creep outside and do some work in the teacher’s garden.

She was working away with a will, when the old teacher came outside.

“I see that you have pulled up my lettuce seedlings and ruined one of my favorite peony plants,” he said sadly. “I asked you to be still, my child, but you disobeyed me. I am going to meditate. We will talk about your future when I am finished.”

It seemed that everything the girl had done had displeased her master. She would be sent home in disgrace, her mother would weep, her sisters would refuse to speak to her, and her father would beat her soundly.

Then she had a wonderful idea. She would make her master a cup of tea. Everyone knew he loved tea, so a really nice, fresh cup might persuade him to give her another chance.

In those days, good tea was rare and expensive. Ordinary people couldn’t possibly afford it, so she had never made tea before with expensive leaves and in a good china pot. Still, making tea is, she reasoned, simple enough—and she was fairly sure she knew how to do it properly.

She heated the water and put it in the teapot, then found a box of tea leaves. She had no idea how much of such fine tea to use, but she put three huge spoonfuls into the pot. The old teacher liked tea a lot, so she reasoned that the more tea he had, the more he would enjoy it.

Finally she took a tiny taste . . . and spat it out in horror. The tea was so bitter it made her whole face pucker in disgust. No one could drink that!

Now she really was in a mess. She had spoiled her master’s expensive tea. How on earth could she fix the problem?

She recalled that, when her mother was cooking, she often used spices to hide any bad taste. The family was poor and could not afford to waste anything, so meals often had to be made from food that was well past its best. That must be the answer. Something had to be added to fix the taste of the tea.

So the girl added first salt to the tea, then ginger, nutmeg, coriander, turmeric . . . and every other spice she could find, even a clove of garlic. Nothing would fix the problem. Each time she tasted it, it tasted even worse.

When the old teacher came back into the cottage, he found his new servant crying her eyes out, surrounded by every spice and flavoring box from his kitchen.

Stammering and ashamed, she told him what she had done, holding out a cup of the most revolting brew for his inspection.

“Throw it away.” the teacher said.

“But it is expensive and I have worked so hard to try to please you,” the girl wailed.

“Throw it away,” said the teacher. “It was trying to fix the original problem that made it so much worse. It is usually better to start afresh when things go wrong.”

The girl did as she was bid, and the teacher told her to heat fresh water, warm the teapot, and put in fresh tea.

When he saw how much tea she was about to put in the pot, he laughed.

“A quarter of that amount will be enough,” he told her. “Now taste it.”

The girl still pulled a face. “I have never tasted good tea before, master,” she said. “To me, this tastes bitter, but it is certainly far better than my last attempt. I believe that you should drink it like this. I don’t think anything else is needed.”

“You are an intelligent young woman,” the teacher said to her, taking a cup of the tea she had made. “And you have already shown that you are eager to please. Sit down, my child. We will rest and enjoy this tea together. You may add a little honey to sweeten your cup, if you wish.”

So the girl stayed and served the old teacher for the rest of his long, long life.

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