Once upon a time, a prince was asked to explain how he came to be so wise. As members of his court fell silent and attentive, the prince thought for a moment, and then shared this story:
“I was a very undisciplined as a child, easily distracted and soft of character. My father saw this, and when I turned 16, he sent me on a journey through the country. I was to travel to the next kingdom and introduce myself to the sovereign there. I was to be my first diplomatic mission, and I was very excited, and very full of myself.
“I expected to travel by carriage with a retinue of attendants and trunks full of clothes, furs, food and wine. But when I stepped into the courtyard of the palace to depart, a lone sentry stood there with two horses. I would travel with only a sword, a change of clothes, and money for food and simple accommodations along the way. Such were to orders of my father. Because he was king, no one would listen to me, and I had no choice but to travel with only my cloak and hat to protect me from the elements.
“So the sentry, who said little during our journey, was my only companion. The first two days, everything was fine. The weather was pleasant and the accommodations and food acceptable. I slept in a simple room, and the sentry nodded outside my locked door as a precaution. On the third day, the rain came down upon us not an hour into our journey. I turned to the sentry and said, ‘Let’s go back to the village and wait for the rain to stop.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘You cannot go back.’
“Who was he to speak to me like this? I turned my horse, and he pulled his sword. ‘I have my orders,’ he said quite seriously. I had no doubt he was telling the truth. If he was not, when we returned to my family’s palace and I told my father he had be untruthful about an order from the king, he would be put to death.
“So on we went through the rain. The next day, the weather turned cold. I forgot my scarf at the inn, but the sentry would not allow me to return for it. I was cold and angry, but on we went. One night, I had too much to drink at a tavern. I thought I was fine the next morning, but two hours into our day’s ride, I felt sick, but I could not go back and rest. At a village in the country, I met a girl. In a single day, I fell in love and was certain she loved me. But the next day, we had to leave, and, of course, I could not go back. On another day, we encountered merchants with fine rugs and gold jewelry. I could not buy it, though, because I was on a mission and could not carry such a load of unnecessary things.
“As each day passed, I woke up knowing that I had to remember all of my belongings. I had to be attentive to what I ate and drank. I had to be kind to the people I met because if I said something hurtful, I could not go back to apologize or explain. If I felt something for someone, I had to tell them then and there, because I could not go back and express my feelings later. I could not acquire unnecessary things. I had to focus on my journey and prepare myself to meet the sovereign.
“Finally, after 10 days on the road, my sentry and I entered the gates of the sovereign’s city. By this time I was not easily distracted. I was not soft. I was moderate in my appetites and steady in my saddle. My words had become by promises. The present had become my domain. I knew that the route back to my father’s kingdom might not be the same, and that the people I had met on my journey I might never see again.
“As we dismounted at the front door, the sovereign’s soldiers took the reins of our horses. The sentry and I walked through the massive series of doors and down a long hallway. Through a final set of doors we slowly walked, and the sovereign stood to greet us.
“‘Welcome,’ he said. ‘How was your journey?’ ‘Enlightening,’ I said, ‘I learned much and hope that I can be of service to you. My father sends his best wishes.’ The sovereign smiled warmly and reciprocated his goodwill.
‘May I show you to your chambers? We can dine and talk this evening.’ ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘My sentry will–‘
As I turned to my sentry, I noticed for the first time that he was not there. ‘My sentry…’ ‘…is gone,’ said the sovereign, completing my thought. ‘You will never see him again.’ ‘I don’t understand,’ I said, now suddenly afraid, in a stranger’s palace, unarmed and unprotected.
‘Fear not,’ said the sovereign. ‘His mission is done. He provided the same service for your father, and for me, and for many now wise and enlightened men.’
“‘I still don’t understand,’ I said.
“‘That was not a man who came with you. That was Time. I trust you learned your lessons well from him, as you will not see him in the flesh again.’
“And so, dumbfounded for a moment, I realized I had learned my lessons. And, if I am wise at all, that is how I came to be.”