A Story about Worry
by James Cowart, Ph.D.
Many years ago in Japan an old peasant lived with his family in a humble dwelling. He had worked hard all his life and now as he neared the end of his life he wanted to make a pilgrimage to the temple on the side of Mt. Fuji. This was a very special temple to him because it was the most important temple for his religion. All his life he had longed to make a pilgrimage there.
One day he packed the few things he needed for the trip and the next morning he set off on his journey. Back in that time there were no cars or planes. In fact, there was no motorized transportation at all. The only way he could travel to Mt. Fuji was by foot. At that time the whole countryside was covered with a vast network of footpaths – most of them had not been mapped. So on that day the old man set off on his journey. At first his pace was rapid and he made good time. Once or twice a day he glanced at Mt. Fuji – which was barely visible as a small white bump on the horizon. After he oriented himself he walked at a fast pace keeping his eyes on the trail so he could avoid the roots and rocks and other obstacles. As he walked along in this way he liked to listen to the sounds of the birds singing and at times he took a moment to admire a beautiful flower growing along the path. Sometimes as he walked rapidly along the trail he met a stranger who he always greeted warmly. Once in a while he would share some food with a stranger when he stopped to eat. At night when he stopped to rest he slept soundly after all the day’s exertion and the next day he woke refreshed and quickly resumed his journey. From time to time he would come to a fork in the trail and then he would glance at the location of Mt. Fuji – still very far away- to help him choose the path that led more directly to his destination. Mostly he just walked and he felt good about how he was progressing on his journey. He was even enjoying the journey itself.
After some weeks of traveling in this fashion something began to change in the old man. Slowly doubts began to creep into his mind. He began to wonder if it was wise for an old man like him to set off on such a very long journey. He didn’t even know what challenges lay ahead of him. He had heard rumors that there were rivers to cross and deep woods with wild animals somewhere along the paths ahead. How would he be able to cross a big river? Would there be a boat and how could he be sure he would ever cross the river? When the trail led through deep woods perhaps he would be attacked by wild animals. If he were attacked, what would he do then? Also, some people had told him about a large village that lay ahead. What if there were thieves there? How could he deal with them? The more he thought about it the more risky and uncertain the journey seemed to be. He began to walk more slowly.
As he walked along he began to think about how very far away Mt. Fuji was from him. After all his walking it still didn’t seem to be any closer. He began to spend more and more of his time staring at the mountain. As he walked along while staring at the mountain, he began to trip over the rocks and tree roots that were along the trail. His feet were soon bruised and bleeding and the more he stared at the mountain the more he became disheartened. He was now barely walking at all. For long periods of time he just stood still and stared at the mountain while thinking, “I am just a weak old man and I should have never tried to walk all the way to Mt. Fuji.”. If you could have been a bird in the tree above the old man you would have seen that his clothing was now filthy and torn. He was covered with bruises and scrapes and he was so feeble that at any moment he looked ready to fall. He was making almost no progress on his journey, but he often stood just staring at the mountain, still far in the distance.
This situation went on for several more days. Then one day a young farmer was plowing his field with an ox. The young farmer happened to look down from his field on the hillside and saw the old man on the trail, below. When the young farmer looked back a few moments later he saw the old peasant lying by the side of the trail. The young farmer rushed down to where the old man was lying, picked him up and half carried him back to his home. He and his wife helped the old man to clean up and eat some healthy food. Then they insisted that the old man sleep there for the night. The next day over breakfast the young farmer asked the old peasant a series of questions and learned about all the details of what had happened since the old man left on his journey. The young farmer had a knack for helping the old man to discover his own answers to his dilemma, for after a while the old peasant suddenly exclaimed,
”I know what I did right and what I did wrong!” “I started my journey in the right way - without trying to plan or worry about future things that I couldn’t control. Once or twice a day I just glanced at Mt. Fuji to be sure I was generally heading in the right direction. I didn’t keep staring at it when I should have been watching the trail ahead or even enjoying the day. What good is it to worry about how long the journey may take or about things that I cannot control? I will now go back to what worked. But if I forget again, and start to do this type of unhealthy worrying, I will remind myself to stop by just saying “Mt. Fuji”. That will be enough to remind me of what I need to do.
With that the old man jumped up and prepared to leave to complete his journey.
by James Cowart, Ph. D