On magic mustard seeds

A dear friend sent me this cute little story:

The Mustard Seed

Once there was a woman whose only son had died. In her sorrow she went to ask a wise holy man is there a way to bring her son back to life. “Fetch me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow. We will use it to bring your son back to life.” He said to her instead of sending her away or try reasoning with her.

At once she quickly set off looking for that elusive mustard seed. The first place she came to was is a huge mansion. Knocking on the door, she asked “I am looking for a house that has never known suffering. Is this the place? It is very important to me.”

“You have come to the wrong place” they told her. They begin to pour out all the tragic things that have befallen upon them.

“Who is better to be able to help these poor unfortunate souls than I who has experience sadness and can understand them?” she thought. Therefore she stayed behind and consoled and comforted them before going to another house that has never known sorrow before.

However, wherever she goes, from huts to palaces, there is never one without tales of sadness and misfortunes. In time to come, she became so involved in listening to other people’s sad stories that she forgot about her quest for that elusive mustard seed. By listening to other people, she had actually driven the grieving out of her life.

Author Unknown

Now this seems a heart-warming little tale of redemption through good works, and no doubt that’s what appealed to my friend, who is a woman of good heart. Alas, I am a cynic and an overly analytical one at that, and my reaction was different:

“Stupid woman should have gone to a brand new housing estate and found a couple of newlyweds who’d just moved in. Sorrow is bound to come to any household in time, so the only solution is to find the brand-spanking-new home before the first tears fall. Since newlyweds always go bonkers on the spice rack, she’d have had the magic mustard seed in no time.

“Of course then she’d have found out that so-called holy men are usually liars, and their claims of being able to resurrect the dead are always bogus. Any wise man could have directed her into helping others, since her natural inclination obviously lay that way – why was the deceit necessary? Was it just so the “holy man” could maintain his reputation for being capable of summoning miracles?”

The source of the story, by the way, was properly cited by my friend. I refuse to do likewise because it links to a bunkum website offering the gullible and desperate help for “everything from the common cold to cancer” (yes, that’s an actual quote) in return for $60 a DVD (there are nine in the set, and if you still seemed burdened with extra money you can take workshops). I’ll be damned if they’ll get any PageRank love from this blog, though.

It’s an old formula: get a charismatic “holy man”, mix the placebo effect with some obscurantist jargon, optionally throw in a claimed connection to Ancient Wisdom ™, and above all avoid actual scientific study like the plague, and you too can make enormous profits off the desperation and misery of sick people.

The same basic technique has worked for freelance Hindu fakirs selling their urine as medicine, and for profitable shrines of the Catholics like Lourdes and Knock, and for various brands of faith healers for centuries. It now forms the entire backbone of cults like Christian Science and Scientology.

In the age of the InterWubs, it’s just easier for the snake-oil salesmen to reach their market. It remains to be seen whether the countervailing abundance of information debunking these charlatans will override that effect. Sadly, I have my doubts; most people, and especially the poor desperate saps the charlatans prey on, prefer a comfortable lie to a hard truth.

Holy men are generally lying toads, or at best deluded, but their traditions can contain wisdom. Shorn of the untruth, there’s wisdom in seeing that a compassionate attention to the living is both a palliative for the grief of losing your loved ones, and perhaps the best of all ways to honor their memory.

In the end, though, your dead remain dead, and a magic mustard seed is only a condiment. To say otherwise is a despicable and unworthy fable.

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~ by B.T. Murtagh on May 20, 2007.

One Response to “On magic mustard seeds”

  1. The moral of the story is: Be moral, but get a new story.

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