January 15, 2009

The Empty Pot

It's probably a very old story. Demi's version at least is set in China. The aging emperor is looking for a successor. Being a lover of flowers, he provides a seed to every child in the land. The child who can produce the most beautiful flower from his or her seed will be rewarded by becoming his royal heir.

Little Ping loves flowers too, and he is a master gardener. He is filled with great joy over the opportunity to engage the challenge. He lovingly places his seed in a small pot filled with rich soil. He waters and tends it. It does not sprout. He moves his little seed to a roomier pot with soil that is black as ink. Days and weeks and months go past, and still the soil remains unbroken.

In despair, Ping returns to the throne of the emperor with an empty pot. Surrounding him are happy children with unimaginablely beautiful blossoms bursting from their pots. Ping is doubly heartsick knowing that he has grown flowers more beautiful still. But not this time.

The emperor examines the children's flowers one by one. Though each is more exquisite than the last, the emperor becomes more and more sullen. As he reaches the last child's flower, his face is darkly clouded and creased deeply with sadness.

At last he espies Ping. Ping's head is hung in shame, yet he bravely approaches the king. "Your pot is empty," says he. "Why?"

Ping haltingly and earnestly explains the small pot and the rich soil and the large pot and the black soil and the watering and the tender words and the hope and the love and the abject failure.

The emperor, to everyone's great shock, laughs with joy and embraces little Ping.

"Meet your new emperor!" he cries. "I do not know where you got those seeds," he says passingly to the hoard of speechless children still holding their beautiful blooms. "Every seed I gave to you was cooked and so could never grow."

The test was never what it appeared to be. It looked to all the world to be flower growing, but it wasn't. It was virtue growing: patience, endurance, hope, honesty, humility, courage.

My pot may be empty today. I may hold it with an empty heart too, and with shame and disappointment and a feeling of real failure. I could have grown a beautiful flower, but my pot stands empty. The emperor is waiting. Will I come and lay it at his feet?

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