In The Book of Virtues, William J. Bennett tells a story called “The Magic Thread.” In this French tale we read of Peter, a boy who is strong and able, yet sadly flawed by an attitude of impatience. Always dissatisfied with his present condition, Peter spends his life day-dreaming about the future.
One day while wandering in the forest, Peter meets a strange old woman who gives him a most tantalizing opportunity – the chance to skip the dull, mundane moments of life. She hands Peter a silver ball from which a tiny gold thread protrudes. “this is your life thread,” she explains. “do not touch it and time will pass normally. But if you wish time to pass more quickly, you have only to pull the thread a little way and a hour will pass like a second. But i warn you, once the thread has been pulled out, it cannot be pushed back in again.”
This magical thread seems the answer to all of Peter’s problems. It is just what he has always wanted. He takes the ball and runs home.
The following day in school Peter has his first opportunity to put the silver ball to use. The lesson is dragging, and the teacher scolds Peter for not concentrating. Peter fingers the silver ball and gives the thread a slight tug. Suddenly the teacher dismisses the class, and Peter is free to leave school. Peter begins to pull the thread a little every day.
But soon Peter begins to use the magic thread to rush through larger portions of life. Why waste time pulling the thread just a little everyday when he can pull it hard and complete school altogether? He does so and finds himself out of school and apprenticed in a trade. Peter uses the same technique to rush through his engagement to his sweetheart. He cannot bear to wait months to marry her, so he uses the gold thread to hasten the arrival of his wedding day.
Peter continues this pattern throughout his life. When hard, trying times come, he escapes them with his magic thread. When the baby cries at night, when he faces financial struggles, when he wishes his own children to be launched in careers of their own, Peter pulls the magic thread and bypasses the discomfort of the moment.
But sadly, when he comes to the end of his life, Peter realizes the emptiness of such an existence. By allowing impatience and discontentment to rule him, Peter has robbed himself of life’s richest moments and memories. With only the grave to look forward to, he deeply regrets ever having used the magic thread.
In introducing this story, Mr. Bennett insightfully comments, “too often, people want what they want (or what they think they want, which is usually “happiness” in one form or another) right now. The irony of their impatience is that only by learning to wait, and by a willingness to accept the bad with the good, do we usually attain those things that are truly worthwhile.”
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