And so the parable says:
A man is walking through the forest thinking about his past and his future, paying little attention to the trees and birds around him, when he hears a low growl behind him. Turning, he sees a large tiger bounding through the woods toward him, images of legs of lambs reflected in his eyes like a Warner Bros. cartoon. Terrified, the man begins to run, huffing his way along just ahead of the tiger (admit it: here the parable breaks down a little–could he really outrun a tiger?). At the moment when the tiger has almost caught up to him, the man comes to a cliff. So scared he doesn’t even think, he flings himself over the edge to find that there are two vines trailing down the side and he is able to snatch onto them, one in his left hand, one in his right. As he hangs, relieved to have escaped, he thinks “Cool. All I have to do now is climb down and I’m home free.” He should know better; this is a parable, after all.
At the moment he’s about to start shimmying down, he hears another low growl, this time from below. The tiger that had been chasing him is still pacing at the top of the cliff, so it can’t be him. Sheepishly (remember the leg of lamb image) peering down, he sees another tiger, even more ferocious looking as tigers go, pacing below him, licking his chops just waiting for the man to climb down. “Oh, great” sighs the man, “I can’t go up; I can’t go down. Oh, well, at least for now I’m safe on the vines and maybe the tigers will get bored and go away.” Hands tightly gripping the vines, he relaxes enough to begin to doze, feeling safe again if not comfortable, when he hears tiny gnawing noises above him. Feeling a bit piqued at his troubles by now, the man looks up to see a black mouse chewing on the left vine and a white mouse doing the same on the right, stripping away his safe hold millimeter by millimeter. “Well, that does it. I’m doomed to be the value menu for that tiger below,” the man sobs, resting his head on the cliffside awaiting his fate.
At that moment, he sees, just within reach to his left, a slender plum branch growing out of the cliff and on it hangs one perfect, shiny purple plum. Grabbing the right vine a bit tighter, he reaches out, plucks the plum and bites into it, the sweet juices rolling down his chin. And he smiles.
And so the parable ends.
Perhaps it’s not too tough to figure out that this parable represents living in the “now,” enjoying the present moment rather than worrying about the past–the tiger of birth chasing him through the woods–or the future–the tiger of death below. But I come back time and again to the mice that represent the passage of time, the night and day, that chew away our lives in tiny pieces. Nibble: a new wrinkle appears. Nip: arthritis in our fingers draws us away from our writing. Chomp: the knee that ran a month ago now berates us on every stair.
The tiger below? Yeah, he’s going to get me, maybe sooner than I would prefer or later than I can tolerably bear. But the mice. The mice are the animals I am most afraid of, the ones that send me running to my therapist, my meditation cushion–or a cosmetic surgeon. The animals whose little needle teeth, tiny as they might be, will cause me, more than the tigers, to forget the pleasure of biting the plum.