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A Little Happier: An Old and Famous Story About How We Can’t Outrun Our Fate

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I love teaching stories of all kinds. I collect them. Here’s a famous story—it’s an ancient Mesopotamian tale, made famous by the fact that it was the epigraph of the acclaimed 1934 novel Appointment in Samarra by American writer John O’Hara.

Here’s my retelling:

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there lived a merchant in Baghdad. One morning, the merchant sent his servant to the marketplace to buy food for the house. Before long, however, the servant returned to the house with a look of terror in his eyes. The merchant asked the servant, “What frightened you?” and the servant replied, “As I was passing through the market, I was jostled, and when I turned to see who had done it, I saw that it was Death. Death looked right at me and made a threatening gesture. Please, sir, lend me your horse so that I can ride away from the city to avoid my fate. I’ll ride to the city of Samarra so that Death can’t find me.” The merchant was a kind man, and he took pity on his servant and lent him the use of his horse, and the servant mounted up and raced away. Then the merchant went out to the marketplace himself to look for Death. And when he saw Death, he said indignantly, “Why did you startle and threaten my servant this morning?” With great courtesy, Death replied, “Oh, I meant no harm, it was just a start of surprise. I was astonished to see your servant here in Baghdad. I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

This is a story that illustrates a profound truth: our actions are fateful, but it’s not possible for us to know that fate, and either pursue or avoid it, until it happens.

If you’d like to hear another one of my favorite teaching stories, I’ll post a link to the episode of “A Little Happier” where I talk about the “argument of the growing heap.” This is one of my favorite teaching stories.

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