2014-07-29

The Parable Of Buried Treasure

Although I no longer remember how it happened, we became aware of buried treasure in our backyard. Tens of millions of dollars in antique Spanish gold doubloons lie waiting for us beneath the surface of the grass. The job was too difficult for any one of us to do it ourselves; it required the coordinated effort of the four of us dig down into the earth and uncover our buried treasure. We agreed to split it equally. We regaled ourselves with tales of all the things we would do with our share of the treasure, including our buying many extravagant gifts for one another.

As a group, we all went out the back door, into the yard, and set about to dig up the buried treasure. Two of us found a spade each, and started digging. The third one insisted on helping, while mysteriously suggesting that we use feathers to brush the dirt away, rather than actually dig with spades. While I never saw the fourth one dig, I found out later that she would only dig when I wasn't looking, and only with her hands.

Despite the others' criticism, I proved to be handy with a shovel. My portion of the job was getting done slowly, but surely.

I was genuinely awed by the second one's capacity to dig, and the good attitude that accompanied the digging.

At a certain point, the second one said to the third, "We will never get to the treasure if you insist on using that feather. There is another spade right over there against the wall. Why don't you go pick it up and help us dig?" I concurred.

But the third one became very upset, for not only were we digging in what the third one felt was an inappropriate way, we were now also promoting our own chosen way of digging over and above other methods.

The fourth one, expecting an apology, looked to me and suggested that it was rather mean-spirited to insist that only spades be used for digging. I didn't understand, and I felt no apology was necessary. I tried to argue my case, but it proved fruitless. The fourth one took it as a personal affront. I went back to my spade.

It was very slow-going, but even I have to admit that with the four of us working together the only way we knew how, we were still making progress. Working regularly at the job, it was likely we'd unearth the doubloons in a few years, and what's a few years' work in the face of such a sweet payout?

One day, I looked up from my digging and noticed that the third one has moved to an entirely different location of the back yard, feather in hand. For all I know, we had the location of the treasure wrong, so I went over and asked.

The third one said, "This is where I have decided to dig, with my feather. You're welcome to join me, but you have to use a feather." Again I asked about the treasure, and this time I was told, "What matters is the feather. If I dig in the right place with the proper implement - a feather - then I am sure the rest of you will eventually catch on."

I spent a week pushing blades of grass around with the third one. We had many nice, long chats about our shared values and mutual interests. But at the end of the week, we were no closer to our doubloons, and I had to admit that I had been making better progress with my spade. I knew I'd never unearth that treasure without the third one's help, even if it meant that the help came in the form of a feather. So I tried to be as nice as possible, and every so often the third one would come join us at the original digging site, and we'd make a little progress.

As time went on, I really started to improve at my digging. I developed a technique involving a slight twist of the wrist, so that I could loosen the soil and pull it up all in one movement. I showed everyone how to do this. The second one said only that it was a good idea and that I should stick to it. The third one burst forth with raucous laughter and condescendingly told me, "Let's just say that if someone is going to dig with a spade, that might be a good way to do it." In response to my puzzled look, the third one added, "Look, I'm going to use my feather!" and then moved over to the other site for the rest of the day. The fourth one said that I shouldn't think I'm any better than anyone else just because I found a technique that works for me.

It went on like that for quite some time. Eventually the third one just didn't come around anymore, preferring the other site, and the feather, of course. Friends and neighbors came around, picked up feathers and sat at that other site, pushing blades of grass around as I had once done. The third one looked happy, but that was the end of the third one's contribution to our excavation for buried treasure.

The fourth one always remained within eyesight, fretting over something. When we tried to talk, the fourth one would shed a little tear and cry, "No!" We found we had better success keeping an upbeat attitude through the fourth one's mood swings.

Progress had slowed to the point that we knew we would never unearth those doubloons. But, at that point, it had become a matter of principle. So long as we continued digging, we were putting forth a combined effort toward a worthwhile goal, and that itself was noble. We, the remaining three of us, still told each other happy stories about how we intended to help each other. We'd never be rich, but at least we'd have fun.

Every day, however, the fourth one stood exactly one inch further away from the hole we were digging. I hardly noticed it at first, but eventually it was a distance that couldn't be ignored. Questioning the fourth one resulted in the usual tears and bad blood, so eventually we gave up on that, too. The last time I remember, the fourth one was standing near the house, one foot in the door. Within another week or two, the fourth one was not in eyesight at all. That was when I finally took notice of the extent of the fourth one's contribution to the dig. It wasn't as large as mine, but it was substantial, and we missed it when it was gone.

The second one and I had developed a strong rapport in the meantime. We traded jokes and tips and kept each other digging with a reasonably good attitude. Occasionally we'd lament the fact that we missed the other two. But between the two of us, we had enough to keep ourselves occupied. I think we were both there for entirely different reasons, but even so, we seemed to agree that digging was a worthwhile goal. We'd never get there, but we'd survive on principle.

The day the second one broke a spade, I was off-site, working at my day job. I returned to find that the second one had stopped digging. The three of them were playing cards instead, and I joined them for a game. It was a lot of fun.

I returned to digging the next day, this time alone. Again, the day after that I dug alone; and then again the next day. I ran into the second one during lunch and suggested we use one of the other spades and continue digging, but the second one seemed unsure.

Some days later, the second one came out at midday to help dig: Me, with my spade, and the second one with a feather. I was stunned. I pointed to the shovel right over there, but the second one just said, "I thought I'd use this today." The second one now only came out to help once every so often, always with a feather.

A confrontation was inevitable. We were the only ones left. Why wouldn't the second one use a spade to help? The argument ended badly. I only ever saw the second one at a third site after that, "digging" with a feather. I was not involved.

It was sunny and hot outside the day I realized that none of them were ever coming back. Briefly, I reminisced about the fond stories I remember our telling each other about the nice things we would do for each other when we finally had our hands on those doubloons. I realized that we'd all have our doubloons if we had just pulled together with the spades and committed to a week of digging.

I smiled wistfully and set my spade down. I was very tired.