The Old Lady at the Gate: A Story on the Power of Perspective

Posted: December 1, 2014 in Stories
Tags: , ,

I heard this story years ago from Madison Jones, a mindfulness teacher in Washington D.C. Beyond that I haven’t been able to track down a cultural source. Here’s the story in a nutshell—as always, feel free to run with it, fleshing it out and bringing it to life in a way that works for you and the context in which you use it.

A long time ago, in a walled city, there was an old lady who would sit by the main gate into the town, watching all the comings and goings of trade and guards and travelers. She had a reputation for always being totally and completely honest.

While sitting there one day, she saw a traveler coming down the road, approaching her city. By his dress, it was clear that he was from a far-off place. As he neared the gate, he saw the old lady and made his way towards her.

“Excuse me, but I’ve never been to this city before. Could you tell me what it’s like?”

“Well,” said the old lady, “what is your own hometown like?”

“Achh, it’s crowded and dirty, and the people are terribly rude.”

“I’m afraid that you will find this city to be just like that.”

“Figures,” said the stranger, kicking a rock and entering the gate.

The old lady returned to watching the world go by her, and it wasn’t long before she noticed another stranger making his way down the road. He too approached the old lady.

“Excuse me, but I’ve never been to this city before. Could you tell me what it’s like?”

“Well,” said the old lady, “what is your own hometown like?”

“Ahh, it’s a splendid place, with lovely buildings and friendly people.”

“I’m happy to say that you will find this city to be just like that.”

“How wonderful,” smiled the stranger, thanking the old lady and entering the gate.

The old lady went back to watching all of the goings on before her, comfortable in the knowledge that over the course of both exchanges she had been totally honest.

Application Notes:

  • The first obvious follow-up question to ask listeners is, how could it be that she was totally honest if her answers seemed so contradictory? It shouldn’t take too long before someone shares the idea that her answers were all a matter of perspective, and given the probable bias of each stranger, their experience of the same city was likely to be vastly different.
  • Here you can get into a discussion about how powerful perspective is in shaping our individual worlds, and how powerful mindfulness can be in working with our perspective. Through mindfulness we learn to observe the “filters” we have in place, moment by moment, with regards to what we notice about the world around us and how we interpret it. Moreover, we can learn ways of expanding or shifting our filters, so that our outlook can bring more happiness and compassion to our experience of the world.
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