Hasids often quote this saying: “The greatest sin is to forget that one is the son of a king.”
Both of these stories are true spiritual guides. And they belong together. Remembering one without the other will lead you astray. For we human beings are complex creatures; we have two inheritances, two truths of origin that we must remember: that we are dust and ashes, and that we are the daughters and sons of royalty. Hazrat Inayat Khan refers to this complexity of the human conditions as “the aristocracy of the spirit and the democracy of the ego.”
The trick is to know, to discern, which one of these inheritances to remember when—our humility or our nobility—which way to champion in our lives at any moment—democracy or aristocracy. Wise spiritual teachers know when to use a story or saying to remind us which one we should be remembering at a particular moment, like the Sufi story of humility and the Hasidic saying of nobility. That’s the power of story over a rule for action—the storyteller or the story itself can speak straight to the heart what the hearer needs to hear at that moment in her life or his life.
We need stories like this and storytellers, too, to help us discern which one of our inheritances to remember at any moment in our lives. But sometimes the right story cannot be found, and there is no wise storyteller near to help us. Then we must discern on our own. And the Hasid Rabbi Bunim of P'shiskha, Blind Bunam, has a story to help us. It is a wonderful story that speaks to the instability and challenge of the human condition and the ongoing need for discernment.
Rabbi Bunam said to his disciples:
“Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words: “For my sake the world was created,” and in his left: “I am but dust and ashes.”
Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, v. 2: 249-50
Try it some time. Write each of your inheritances on a separate piece of paper and place them in your pockets as Blind Bunam counsels. Then pull them out as needed. It will build your power to discern between on your own and know how to live gracefully moving between humility and dignity. It’s the practice of discernment.