Rummaging through an old musty stack of well worn books, my eye was for some reason drawn to a tattered green volume, that looks as though it had been passed over by a hundred previous hands. I picked it up and flipping though the aged pages felt a surge of anticipation flow through me.
A church near our house has an annual garage sale, and each year my family finds ourselves looking through heaps of castaways in search of unappreciated treasure. This year we found a bike for one of our daughters, a couple of puzzles and some children’s books. However, the true treasure was the book I held in my hands.
Obviously, many had passed over this copy of “The Stories of Anton Checkov.” Every story in this dusty old book is available online, either for free or at a minuscule price. However, there is nothing like reading a classic author on the printed page. I’ve only read a couple of short stories by Checkov, and that was over a decade ago, so I can’t quite explain why I was so excited to begin to read this particular book. However, later that night, as I began reading the first story, the acute insight on humanity that the Russian authors are known for, began to jump off the page.
The first story I read was titled “A Day in the Country” and described what seemed to be a typical day in the life of a young orphan named Fyokla. At first glance, based on the title, one might be compelled to skip to a story with a more exciting description. And yet in classic Russian fashion, Checkov takes the happenings of an ordinary day and illuminates profound insight into the human story that transcend Russian culture. Each paragraph drips with wisdom, as Fyokla evokes the assistance of an old man with a “grim, drunken face” named Terenty.
At one point Fyokla brings Terenty to a young friend named Danilka who has gotten his hand stuck in a hole in a lime tree. Inspite of much effort and exhaustion, the young boy can not get his hand out. Terenty “snaps off a broken pieces and the boys hand, red and crushed, is released.” The rest of the day is spent with the orphans following Terenty around, learning hard earned lessons of life and wisdom from the gentle and unassuming old man.
Terenty is not a man who would garner attention or accolades in our society. He is an outcast, loved only by those who know him well. His input and opinions are not sought out by anyone but the beggarly orphaned youth in his small rural village. And yet, for those who take the time to listen to him, are richly rewarded. As Danilka reflects, “Terenty answers all his questions, and there is no secret in Nature which baffles him. He knows everything.” The narrator goes on to observe, “And indeed, it is not only Terenty that is so wise… the innkeeper, the market -gardener, the shepherd, and all the villagers, generally speaking, know as much as he does.” These orphans did not live in a rare community of savants. Checkov is poignantly painting a picture of the wisdom that is all around us, if we are humble enough to seek it out.
As my eyes drifted across the pages of prose, my mind spun intractably forward, contemplating the application of this story to my life.
When I get stuck, who will come and “snap off the broken pieces” of my own logic, opinions and perspectives?
Whose wisdom am I actively seeking out to help me understand the world around me? In a world that venerates potential and possibility, how will I ensure that I have a steady diet of timeless wisdom from those who have gone before me. When faced with the relentless pressure to find the new, the innovative and the unique, who anchors me back to what is proven?
I continue to look for my own “Terenty” figures in life. Checkov has challenged me anew to ensure I don’t rule out the unassuming. Wisdom will not thrust itself upon us. It must be pursued and cultivated. The wisest among us do not advertise their insight with flashing neon lights. They may be disguised behind a “grim, drunken face” or in the person of an unheralded, seemingly unimpressive neighbor. It is safe to assume that the truly wise are not actively promoting their wares, and therein lies the rub. The truly wise are often tough to find.
Who in your world will speak wisdom and life into your soul? Who will “snap off the broken pieces” that hold you captive? Who in your life is actively engaged in helping you see the world as it really is intended to be viewed?
Who is your Terenty?
I would love to here your thoughts in the comment section below!
If you would like to read “A Day in the Country” click here. However, I highly recommend getting a paper copy… preferably an old, well worn version.