On a wall in my little home office there are two frying pans hanging from a nail. The old pans, one measuring about eleven inches in diameter and the other eight, are crusted black with carbon on the outside from some sixty-plus years of hard use. They were probably gifts when my parents wed back in 1937. My mother routinely fried up breakfasts of bacon and eggs for Dad and her five boys using those old skillets. Occasionally Mom would flip a pancake or two onto our plates from the same pans. They were also used to re-heat many a leftover.
Mom had plenty of opportunities to upgrade her cookery. She could have had the latest cast iron skillets or Teflon non-stick super cookers but she was content with the old reliable pans that served her so well. Besides, it wasn’t the pans themselves that gave her status as a cook but the quality of the meals they helped to produce. My folks were known for their hospitality and our frequent visitors bragged on Mom’s prowess in the kitchen.
The great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), wrote a short story entitled, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” He relates the story of a poor peasant by the name of Pahom who longs to own his own land at a time when private ownership of land in his native country is almost beyond one’s wildest dreams.
One day Pahom declares, “If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the devil himself.” Unknown to him, the devil overhears and says to himself, “I’ll give you land enough; and by means of the land, I’ll get you into my power.”
Through his diligence and hard work Pahom becomes the proud owner of a small but productive piece of land and he is very happy. He reasons, however, that if he finds joy in owning a small piece of land, he would have even more joy by owning more land. He does some wheeling and dealing and acquires larger and larger parcels, each more productive than the last. In spite of the times in which they live, he is able to support his family very well.
Pahom eventually hears about some very large parcels of land that are available in a far off region of the country. He travels there and, seeing the land and visiting with the “Bashkir” owners, he asks the price. He is told that the land goes for $1,000 rubles a day. “A day?” asks Pahom. “What measure is that? How many acres would that be?”
“Oh, we do not know how to reckon it out,” said the chief of the Bashkirs. “We sell it by the day. As much as you can go around on your feet in a day is yours, and the price is one thousand rubles a day.” Pahom was surprised. “But in a day you can get around a large tract of land.” The chief laughs, “It will be yours!” says he. “But there is one condition: if you do not return on the same day to the spot whence you started, your money is lost.”
Pahom agrees to the deal and spends a sleepless night thinking about how much land he is going to acquire the following day. On the morrow the chief removes his fur hat and places it on the ground and Pahom places one thousand rubles on top of it. As the sun comes up over the horizon, Pahom sets out to walk around and encompass “his” land. To make a long story short, as he traverses the beautiful, rich and fertile land, he wants to take in a little more and a little more until he realizes that the sun will soon be setting and he remembers that before that happens he must get back to where he started.
Pahom panics and begins to cut corners and to run faster and faster to get back to the starting point. When he makes it just in the nick of time, he is totally exhausted. So exhausted, in fact, that he lies down and dies. The chief says, “What a pity!” and picks up the thousand rubles before replacing the fur hat back on his head. He orders his servant to bury poor Pahom.
“The servant picks up the spade and digs a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buries him in it. Six feet from his head to his toes was all he needed.”
Some folks think they will find happiness with more land. Others think happiness will come with fancy pots and pans… or hot tubs, or expensive cars or a bigger and fancier house. Some don’t think they can be happy until they “graduate” or “get a raise” or “get married” or “hit the lottery jackpot.”
I love certain works of art. I used to think I would be happy if I could own some of them. But after browsing art museums and appreciating the works of the masters pictured in books and magazines, I have come to realize that I can enjoy their works without having to own them. I don’t have to own the star-studded night sky, the sunset or nature’s other masterworks in order to enjoy them.
We should always be striving to better ourselves, but I think that through the things we most crave, just as Pahom did, we sometimes allow the devil to get us into his power. We too often fail to find contentment with that which we already have.
Charles Dickens said, “When you drink of the water don’t forget the spring from which it flows.” I think I’ll just keep those old frying pans hanging from a nail on the wall to remind me how blessed I am to have come from good contented stock and to be able to live at peace with those things I already have in this great land that overflows with such abundance.