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What is Most Important in Life? A Lesson from Tolstoy


There is a story by Leo Tolstoy of a king who had everything he needed, but he had three questions that nagged at him.

What is the right time to do any one thing?

Who are the right people to listen to and work with?

What is the most important thing to do at all times?

He figured that if he knew the answers to these questions, he would be free of any anxiety and never have any issues.

He called upon all his countrymen to a contest to see if anyone had the answers. Hundreds of people came in.

For the first question there were a variety of answers. Some people told him he needed to fill out a calendar and follow it to the tee and then he would know what the right thing to do was. Others had other theories.

For the second question, again, some people listed religious leaders; others said he needed a wise counsel to rely on, while others said the military is who he should surround himself with.

The third answer brought similar responses from science to religion to the military.

Underwhelmed by all these responses, the king dressed in peasant clothing and walked up to visit a wise hermit on top of the mountain, for he may have the answer.

The hermit was busy plowing a garden and the king said, “Excuse me, wise hermit, you do not know me, but I have come to ask you three questions.”

After asking the questions the hermit smiled, patted him on the back, and continued on. The king soon saw that the hermit looked tired and offered to help and began plowing himself. After some time, the king asked the questions again and was interrupted by the sight of a naked man running through the hills with blood spilling from his stomach.

The bleeding man made his way to the hermit and king and the king swept into action and began tearing his own shirt to dress this man’s wound. The hermit and king went to lay the man down to rest in the cave where the hermit stayed and the king’s eyes began to close from exhaustion.

When he awoke he saw the man lying next to him and the man said, “Please forgive me.”

“What have you done that needs forgiveness my son,” said the king.

He continued, “You do not know me, but I was your enemy and after the last war you took my house and killed my brother. I came here for revenge to kill you, and had been waiting for you down the hill for quite some time. But after you didn’t show up, I decided to run out from where I was, but your men found me and gave me this wound. If it wasn’t for you, I would have died out there, so please forgive me and I will be in your debt forever. The king was surprised how easy it was to reconcile with a former enemy and pledged to give the man his house and land back. The man then went on his way.

The hermit came back in the cave and the king once again asked him these three questions to which the hermit replied, “You already know the answer.”

The king gave him a confused look.

 The hermit said, “Don’t you see, if you didn’t take pity on me yesterday and help me plow the garden, you would have been attacked by that man and likely died. So the most important time was with me helping me plow those gardens and I was the most important man to be with and to do this good deed was the most important thing to do at the time. After this, the most important time was dressing the wound of that man, for if you had not done that he would have died and you would have never made peace with him. So he was the most important person to be with and what you did for him was the most important thing to do.

So what can you take away from Tolstoy’s story today? We are all looking for the next best thing or the most important thing to be doing and what we often don’t realize is that maybe what we’re doing RIGHT NOW is actually the most important time and who we’re with is the most important person and what we’re doing in the moment is the most important thing to do.

How does this story apply to your life? Please share your thoughts, stories, and questions below. Your interactions provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

What is Most Important in Life? A Lesson from Tolstoy

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is creator of the six month online program A Course in Mindful Living, author of the book Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion, The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Mindfulness Meditations for the Anxious Traveler: Quick Exercises to Calm Your Mind, the premier eCourse Basics of Mindfulness Meditation: A 28 Day Program, the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations. Join The Now Effect Community for free Daily Now Moments and a Weekly Newsletter. Dr. Goldstein is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles.

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APA Reference
Goldstein, E. (2009). What is Most Important in Life? A Lesson from Tolstoy. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 25, 2019, from


Last updated: 16 Oct 2009
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