It happened once upon a time that an elderly man was walking from one part of the country to another, and as he went, he fell into company with a younger man. After walking some way together the younger man said, “Uncle, you seem to me to be wise. Perhaps you are a sage or a philosopher, whatever that might be. In any case, I would like to ask you a question. Does our life have a purpose? There are moments when I feel hopeful, and then at other times life seems totally meaningless. What is the purpose of our life?”
The old man did not answer immediately. Then, as they were passing a small pond, he stopped and plucked a dried reed from the shore. The movement disturbed a small bird that had been hiding in the reed bed. It flew away, calling loudly, and the older man watched it go.
They continued walking, and then came upon a man driving a donkey cart. The older man stopped and, greeting the driver, said, “Friend, I have this dried reed. If it is of any use to you, I will give it to you.”
The driver laughed. “Uncle, a single reed? I am going to fill my cart with dried reeds, and for that I will get two copper coins in the market. One reed to me is nothing!” And still laughing at the old man’s joke, he drove on.
The two men continued walking until they approached the gates of a town, and there, under a tree, was sitting a man wearing little more than rags. The older man greeted him as well, and made the same offer. “Friend, I have this dried reed. If it is of any use to you, I will give it to you.”
The man’s face lit up. “Thank you, Uncle,” he said, and taking out a small knife, he quickly fashioned the reed into a flute, and started to play. His music had a tenderness and charm, and soon people began to stop and listen to him. After a time someone stepped forward and placed a silver coin at the feet of the poor man.
“Now,” said the older man to the younger one, leading him away from the music, “you have your answer. The same reed had different meanings. To the bird, it was shelter, perhaps. To the driver, it was too small to have any significance at all. To the poor man, it became the voice of his heart and it won the hearts of others. Is it not clear that the meaning is not in the thing, but in the one who holds it? If life has a meaning, therefore, you will only find it in yourself.”