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A Sufi tale that makes us wonder what skills are truly valuable. Are all skills equal, or is context everything?

The bones of the story:

There once lived a scholar of languages and grammar who had to journey across a huge river. It was a long, slow trip and the scholar soon got bored. He called out to the boatman. “Let’s talk, boatman. What languages have you studied? Do you know about grammar and phonetics?” he asked, introducing the subject that was closest to his heart. The boatman shook his head. “No sir,” he replied politely, “I have no use for such tools.”

“What a pity,” said the scholar rather condescendingly. “You have wasted half of your life.” The boatman felt his heart sink.

Later, a storm broke out. The wind whipped the water into turbulence. The small boat was flung about and in the chaos, the boatman shouted out to the terrified scholar, “Forgive the question, sir, but do you know how to swim.”

The scholar shook his head. “I’m afraid not, boatman. I have always been immersed in thinking and have had not use for such a tool.”

“In that case, sir, you have wasted half your life, for this boat is soon to sink.”

And with that, the boatman dove into the water, leaving the scholar to his fate.


  • A Sufi tale found in Rumi’s Mathnawi I: 2829-2847.