There were two new servants who had recently been hired onto the King’s staff. As they went through the training process, they came to know one another. The first, Samuel, was terrified of being fired and was therefore very eager to please. While the existing team of servants responsible for the training were well-known throughout the castle for their cruel treatment of the new recruits, no task was below him, no treatment too debasing, no punishment too severe. Recognizing this, his handlers quickly learned to abuse him in particularly demeaning ways.
The second trainee, Benjamin, was subject to the same behavior but resisted mightily. He refused to do anything that he could clearly see was unnecessary, unproductive, or designed purely for his suffering, and he was punished accordingly. Just as Samuel had been the victim of unusually cruel treatment due to his unassertiveness, Benjamin suffered much the same because of his stubborn refusal to be treated less than human.
During the periods when they weren’t working, the two men had many arguments over the other’s conduct. Samuel continuously warned Benjamin of the perils of his ego, and how nothing good could come of it, while Benjamin derided Samuel’s non-existent self respect.
“Well, we’ll just see who makes it through and who doesn’t.” Samuel said on one occasion.
Sure enough, only a few weeks later, Benjamin could stand it no longer, quitting and storming out of the castle in a manner that would be talked about for years to come. Before leaving, however, he gave the entire staff a good piece of his mind.
Watching him go, Samuel shook his head and clucked his tongue, feeling nothing but pity for this poor man who was simply too proud to endure hardship in the name of a promising future.
In the years that followed, Samuel was promoted, finding himself on the very training staff that had so tortured him in the beginning. He did not hold back. All the years of punishment and humiliation he had endured was visited just as viciously onto the new recruits, if not more so. Yet his sycophantic ways continued as well, and he perfected the art of bending to the right person and saying the right thing at the right time, eventually manipulating his way into a very high position. Yet it was a rare day that he did not wonder about his hot-headed counterpart and what might’ve become of him.
Finally, after almost a decade and a half, Samuel set out to find his old trainee friend. Following a few unproductive days in the village, he located an address for him and went to knock on his door.
As he had expected, the home was beyond modest, and he laughed inwardly at the fate of his foolish counterpart. Yet, when the door was answered, he was informed that Benjamin had recently been evicted and was most likely living in the slums.
Eventually Samuel found him, staying in a structure that could indeed be described only as a hovel. Upon entering, he saw him there, sitting in the middle of the dirt floor, dressed in rags and eating a very, very thin soup. It was plain to see that his misery and negativity had only grown over the years, and this is where it had landed him. The fate of a true curmudgeon.
“You poor fool,” Samuel whispered.
Benjamin looked up from his soup.
“Do you remember me?” Samuel continued. “Do you remember all those arguments we used to have? How you derided me for having no self respect? Well, look at me now. There are hundreds below me. I am the King’s head servant.”
Benjamin took a good look. Samuel, he saw, had grown quite plump during his time in the King’s service: he was clean, rosy-cheeked, dressed in the finest of clothes, and did in fact exude an air of power that was palpable.
“Yes, you look like you have done quite well for yourself,” Benjamin said, and he went back to slurping his soup.
“And think. If only you could’ve done so too. If only you could’ve learned to obey your king, you wouldn’t be sitting here, now, forced to eat that thin soup.”
Benjamin looked up again, smiling wryly. His teeth were rotten. “And think,” he replied, “if only you had learned to eat this soup, you wouldn’t be stuck obeying the king.”
Image: Diogenes by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1873)