Betsy Devine: Funny ha-ha and/or funny peculiar

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The shaggy-guru “life-is-a-fountain” story

January 12th, 2006 · 1 Comment

“Life is a fountain.” For some reason, this catch-phrase always brings me comfort. It comes from a long shaggy-dog tale I once heard:

A man sold all his possessions and left his family to travel the world, because he wanted to know the meaning of life. After many years of seeking, and near despair, his last hope was a guru who lived high up on a very dangerous mountain. Up the mountain our seeker went, through a thunderstorm, tired and desperate and hungry–his food was all gone, he injured one foot but struggled on with a cane out of a tree branch. Finally, on top of the mountain, there sat the guru, surrounded by tame animals, with bright sunlight breaking through a hole in the clouds to shine all around him.

The seeker staggered forward. “O holy guru, I have given up everything to seek the truth, but it will all be worthwhile if you can answer my question: What is the meaning of life?”

The guru smiled and said, “My son, here is the answer you seek: Life is a fountain.”

After a long pause, the seeker shook his head. “A fountain? I have come thousands of miles to hear your words–my possessions are all gone, I’m starving, I’ll probably die on this mountain–and all you have to say is, life is a fountain?”

The guru trembled. “You mean…it’s not a fountain?”

And, I have to admit, I like the tale even better now that I’ve read these variants by philosopher Robert Nozick:

A man goes to India, consults a sage in a cave and asks him the meaning of life. In three sentences, the sage tells him, the man thanks him and leaves. There are several variants of this story also: In the first, the man lives meaningfully ever after; in the second he makes the sentences public so that everyone then knows the meaning of life; in the third, he sets the sentences to rock music, making his fortune and enabling everyone to whistle the meaning of life; and in the fourth variant, his plane crashes as he is flying off from his meeting with the sage. In the fifth version, the person listening to me tell this story eagerly asks what sentences the sage spoke. And in the sixth version, I tell him.

Anyway, thanks to Jeanne Kane who just sent me email saying how much she enjoyed “It reduces to a problem previously solved”–one of my favorite catch-phrases, which popped up in my podcast with Dave Winer. Jeanne, here’s another favorite, hope you can use it!

Tags: Learn to write funny

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