There is an old story that is thought to have originated with Sufi poets such as Rumi, and which was passed down to western readers via translations of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that tells of a king in an Eastern kingdom long ago who offered a great reward if someone could tell him a piece of wisdom that would endure in good times and bad. There are various versions of this story but they all center around this king and his search for enduring wisdom. Eventually he asks a man known for wisdom to go and think about this request and if he could provide the monarch with a great piece of erudition, he would be greatly rewarded.
The man goes off and sometime later returns to the court to present the king with his insight. The traditional version of this story states he handed the king a small box and when it was opened, it revealed a small ring with an inscription around the outer band. The king was perplexed and asked, incredulously, "Is this it?". The man nodded and said, "Put the ring on your finger and read the inscription."
The king did so, reading out, "This too shall pass."
The man said, "Wear this ring always and read the inscription frequently. Thus in times of great fortune and great sadness, you will always be reminded that those times are fleeting, and that this too shall pass."
The king was much impressed with the man's wisdom that would endure throughout life, and gave him his reward.
This story has lasted throughout thousands of years of human history and has been referenced by many great thinkers and speakers. Abraham Lincoln told this story in a speech at the Wisconsin State Fair prior to being elected President of the United States. The subject matter was supposed to be agriculture, a topic worthy of most state fairs, but Lincoln took a less direct route in his speech. He used the story to illustrate the impermanence of life, in this case, for farmers who might enjoy a bumper harvest one year and drought or disease the next. In either case, those times do not last forever, and remembering that can provide chastity in the good times and comfort in the bad.
For us as Masons, this story's moral is encapsulated in the symbol of the hourglass from the Master Mason lecture. As an emblem if human life, we can easily see "how swiftly the sands run, and how quickly our lives are coming to a close!" While in the present, we may be tempted to think the current hard times we endure or great fortune we enjoy will last forever, the hourglass tells us this is only an illusion, similar to how the sands in the hourglass pass almost imperceptibly through the machine. A day may seem like it lasts forever, but time marches on and in the end, proves that everything is temporary.
I was recently reminded of this when my daughter turned 4. We held her birthday party on a recent Saturday afternoon. We'd decided to make it a blow-out because her first three birthdays were subdued due to the pandemic. We invited friends in the morning/afternoon and scheduled a nice dinner with family in the evening. At one point that afternoon we had 26 toddlers and their parents on our front lawn eating pizza and cupcakes, getting their faces painted (the kids, not the parents!), bouncing off each other like colliding asteroids in the bouncy house we rented, and going crazy when the pony we booked showed up dressed up like a unicorn. She'd chosen a Frozen-themed party and we have a photo of her on the unicorn dressed like Elsa, face painted, barefooted from the bouncy house. That evening we had family over to our home for a nice dinner and cake and ice cream for dessert.
The weekend was a blur of frantic preparations, running to Party City (multiple times), picking up food, setting up games and praying the torrential rain of Friday would end by Saturday (it did). The party itself was chaos with all the kids, and I felt like it was both the longest and shortest two hours of my life. But that night after we had dinner and gathered around the birthday girl to sing "Happy Birthday" to her, I think on a subconscious level the lesson of the hourglass, and the story of the king, reached me. Life is impermanent, and she will never have another 4th birthday party again. The craziness and magic of that day will be remembered for a long time, but will never come around again. The stress of the days leading up to the party, the chaos of the party itself, and the joy of seeing her surrounded by her family who had come just to see and celebrate with her, is all temporary. Those moments, good and bad, slip away almost imperceptibly, and yet, we are surprised to find that in the short space of an hour, they're all exhausted.
It is a bittersweet lesson we take from the hourglass in the lecture. Life is full of good and bad, but none of it lasts forever. So, we should seek to enjoy the former while it's here, and buckle down under the latter while it persists. For this too, we know, shall pass.
Phillip Welshans is Senior Warden of Palestine Lodge #189 in Catonsville, MD under the Grand Lodge of Maryland A.F. & A.M. He is also a member of the Maryland Masonic Lodge of Research #239, and the Hiram Guild of the Maryland Masonic Academy. As a member of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, S.J. in the Valley of Baltimore, he has completed the Master Craftsman programs and is a member of the Scottish Rite Research Society. His interests are primarily in Masonic education, particularly the history of the Craft, esotericism, and the philosophy of Masonry.