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People and Books

The Master said, “Not to be known is no sorrow. My sorrow is not knowing men.”

—Confucius, Analects I.16

Two paths were laid before a young scholar. He could either go on in the academy, or leave it altogether to find work “in the world.” He weighed this decision carefully. One day, a respected professor advised him to leave, for this professor had regretted having never worked outside the academy. The young scholar, who was excellent in his field, would have made a great enough name for himself in some corner of research, but he treasured the professor’s regrets in his heart.

One day, the decision presented itself in symbols and neat phrases, which made it all the more powerful: he said to himself, “You love books, and you love people. But do you not love people more than books?” And he answered himself, “People—I love people more than books. I choose people over books.”

Months later, he did not regret his decision. Years later, he looked back at it with overflowing joy.

One day, a beloved youth asked him why the young scholar—now an older man—had chosen to be where he ended up.

The man’s reply conjured up those old symbols. He said, “I once had to choose between people and books, and I chose people.”

The youth, confused, asked, “But don’t you still love books? You talk about them without ceasing. Have you not chosen people and books together?”

“In a sense, I guess I have. But that was not the decision that I made. I didn’t literally forsake books when I chose people, just as I wouldn’t have literally lost all contact with people if I had chosen books. But people and books are symbols. The first one, which I chose, represents a commitment to relationships with individuals, like you. The second one represents a commitment to ideas and to being great in the world. This one I left behind. I imagine it is possible for some who stay in the academy to choose people, but it would not have been possible for me to do that.”

The youth still looked confused, but did understand much more about this man who loved him.

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