The Three Gifts – So what have you learned in 50 years?





** A child’s note, three gifts from a parent, and Tolstoy’s famous story **


I stumbled upon a note recently from my ten-year-old son, written in print with a pencil, the scrawl tending slightly downward.

To Mommy

Happy Birthday,

Enjoy this moment while you can because you’ll never be 43 again.



What truth from the mouth of babes! I should have taken his advice because I don’t have much memory of being 43. Or maybe I took the advice, relishing in the moments along the way, and forgetting the past. I do have dual lives, something that started long before the Magic of Tidying Up sensation: at times, I’m a hoarder and other times a KonMari queen, so I’m happy the note survived the purges. I had pressed his folded card, into the lid of a small silver-painted box with a plastic cat glued to the top, a boy’s gift for his mother.



The Question

At my birthday last month, my oldest child was home from college and asked what I had learned about life, now that I was in my fifties, like I lived in some other biosphere. The six of us were sitting at the round table: my husband, three children and my mother, an admittedly more and more egalitarian arrangement now that my children were young adults, or at least on the cusp. She wanted to be helpful and reminded me that I finished grad school last year. That was kind of her. I didn’t have a meaningful answer and said I would give it some thought.

My children are 20, 18, and 16. I like this age of late adolescence but I’m not sure the adolescents like me. The younger two, the teens, seem to avoid me. They hibernate in their rooms, like they’ve gone into a family dormant period.  My son and I had a disagreement recently and rather than screaming at the base of the stairs, I sent a message to his phone. It’s a sad state of affairs. He had taken on a superior tone, so I wrote him this.

Teens are perfect. Twentysomethings realize there are things they don’t know. In their 30s they recognize the hubris of the last decade. In their 40s they gain wisdom so that in their 50s they can raise their teens, who are perfect.

You can see what a pleasant surprise my eldest child’s birthday question turned out to be. Having left her teens, living out on her own a couple years, the question reflected an open mind and amiable curiosity. How refreshing. Unlike the task-driven concerns of her sibling, her question required more than your run-of-the-mill texting.

So, just what have I learned in my five plus decades on the planet?



The Three Gifts

I can’t call these answers because I don’t know if there are answers to such a question. Answers are for calculus and engineers. After a few days thinking on it, I wrote my daughter a letter with three ideas, or in this case, three hard-won gifts I wanted to share from my failures and triumphs, and just plain old experience, from having lived in the world.

First, she had mentioned my graduate degree which was in writing. Ultimately a degree in fine arts for me meant liberation, from rigidity or defined boundaries. For me this was especially true after undergraduate studies in mathematics and engineering. In the craft of writing, the art of language, I realized I can do what I want, anything I want. I must learn how to use the tools and how to work the craft, so there are skills to develop, but mastery means letting go and taking the risk on intuition and creativity. Following that and trusting in where it takes you is no small thing and easy to smother or pass over; the true vain might just lead to the mother lode. Regardless of her chosen studies and profession, I believe this idea is more relevant in a digital age than ever before.

Second, I realized that beauty is good, and it must involve truth. Beauty – the physical, that of the game, the creation, the individual, beauty in all its forms – is only real or lasting when it is a manifestation of something deeper, the spirit or soul, the core, and that must be founded on virtue or moral good. Sounds heavy but it’s simple. Here are examples. My daughter had told me about a coding assignment her class had grappled with weeks; her brilliant professor wrote the code on the board in something like ten lines. The students sat staring, dumbfounded. How that code is used –in this case I imagine ultimately for the nation’s security because she is a cadet at West Point– is important, its ends rooted in good. Here was a solution with elegance and beauty. It could also be the piano performance that touches the soul, the song that makes you cry or lifts your spirits to new heights.

The third idea is authenticity, kindness, and mindfulness, seeing things clearly. I should always make time for someone in need. More broadly, with family, friends, and coworkers, that means making myself available to them, so that when we are together, even if that involves strangers, I try to see them clearly, see the situation. In that moment, I try to cultivate a manner to be kind and give joy.

This third idea is the hardest because it is not natural for me. I’m not a nurturing person and I’m always stretched for time; I lack empathy and have little patience. Yet, I can always take one to two minutes for someone and when with them, see them and listen. Be kind in every exchange and share joy. This does not preclude being authentic, to be yourself, to show emotion. And disagree. You can agree to disagree. And often the harder path is the right path.

These remind me of the rules of chess: easy to learn and hard to master. The letter to my daughter was a long one, because I wanted and needed to understand the responses for myself to make any sense of them for her.


Take Away

  • I’m embarrassed to say it took me two years of school and a hefty price tag to get to the first idea. The graduate degree in fine arts liberated me, freed the creativity to follow my intuition.
  • The second idea involved understanding beauty and truth and how that is different than mere appearances, because it must be rooted in moral good and virtue. Finding such truths and beauty, creating it, learning to see and appreciate it, that takes a lifetime.
  • The third idea has been gaining on me slowly and I had to live through the terrible twenties and the hubris of my thirties to know myself better and to recognize kindness and authenticity when I see it. And more importantly… to practice kindness and authenticity.

If you ask me this question next month or at my next birthday, my response might be different. There are no right answers.


Yet if your child or your friend asked you what you learned in your years on this planet, what would that be? If you’re a teen or young adult and someone asked you the same question, what would you share?


Fun Fact 

Spoiler Alert – Scroll below to read story in its entirety

This letter reminded me of Tolstoy’s famous parable. In the story, a King sought counsel for his Three Questions: when is the most important time, who are the most important people and what is the most important thing to do.  He received all sorts of advice and replies, then eventually trekked into the woods to visit a hermit. There’s an attempt on the King’s life and other plot points, but the King learns that the most important time is now, the most important person or people are those you are with, and the most important action is to do her or them good.

(Link to Project Gutenberg Files, Translation L. and A. Maude, full text of story)


*Here is a wonderful illustrated version by John J. Muth for children.

The Three Questions written and illustrated


* Full text of story


by Leo Tolstoy


It once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid; and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.

And this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to any one who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do.

And learned men came to the King, but they all answered his questions differently.

In reply to the first question, some said that to know the right time for every action, one must draw up in advance, a table of days, months and years, and must live strictly according to it. Only thus, said they, could everything be done at its proper time. Others declared that it was impossible to decide beforehand the right time for every action; but that, not letting oneself be absorbed in idle pastimes, one should always attend to all that was going on, and then do what was most needful. Others, again, said that however attentive the King might be to what was going on, it was impossible for one man to decide correctly the right time for every action, but that he should have a Council of wise men, who would help him to fix the proper time for everything.

But then again others said there were some things which could not wait to be laid before a Council, but about which one had at once to decide whether to undertake them or not. But in order to decide that, one must know beforehand what was going to happen. It is only magicians who know that; and, therefore, in order to know the right time for every action, one must consult magicians.

Equally various were the answers to the second question. Some said, the people the King most needed were his councillors; others, the priests; others, the doctors; while some said the warriors were the most necessary.

To the third question, as to what was the most important occupation: some replied that the most important thing in the world was science. Others said it was skill in warfare; and others, again, that it was religious worship.

All the answers being different, the King agreed with none of them, and gave the reward to none. But still wishing to find the right answers to his questions, he decided to consult a hermit, widely renowned for his wisdom.

The hermit lived in a wood which he never quitted, and he received none but common folk. So the King put on simple clothes, and before reaching the hermit’s cell dismounted from his horse, and, leaving his body-guard behind, went on alone.

When the King approached, the hermit was digging the ground in front of his hut. Seeing the King, he greeted him and went on digging. The hermit was frail and weak, and each time he stuck his spade into the ground and turned a little earth, he breathed heavily.

The King went up to him and said: “I have come to you, wise hermit, to ask you to answer three questions: How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time? Who are the people I most need, and to whom should I, therefore, pay more attention than to the rest? And, what affairs are the most important, and need my first attention?”

The hermit listened to the King, but answered nothing. He just spat on his hand and recommenced digging.

“You are tired,” said the King, “let me take the spade and work awhile for you.”

“Thanks!” said the hermit, and, giving the spade to the King, he sat down on the ground.

When he had dug two beds, the King stopped and repeated his questions. The hermit again gave no answer, but rose, stretched out his hand for the spade, and said:

“Now rest awhile-and let me work a bit.”

But the King did not give him the spade, and continued to dig. One hour passed, and another. The sun began to sink behind the trees, and the King at last stuck the spade into the ground, and said:

“I came to you, wise man, for an answer to my questions. If you can give me none, tell me so, and I will return home.”

“Here comes some one running,” said the hermit, “let us see who it is.”

The King turned round, and saw a bearded man come running out of the wood. The man held his hands pressed against his stomach, and blood was flowing from under them. When he reached the King, he fell fainting on the ground moaning feebly. The King and the hermit unfastened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his stomach. The King washed it as best he could, and bandaged it with his handkerchief and with a towel the hermit had. But the blood would not stop flowing, and the King again and again removed the bandage soaked with warm blood, and washed and rebandaged the wound. When at last the blood ceased flowing, the man revived and asked for something to drink. The King brought fresh water and gave it to him. Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool. So the King, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut and laid him on the bed. Lying on the bed the man closed his eyes and was quiet; but the King was so tired with his walk and with the work he had done, that he crouched down on the threshold, and also fell asleep—so soundly that he slept all through the short summer night. When he awoke in the morning, it was long before he could remember where he was, or who was the strange bearded man lying on the bed and gazing intently at him with shining eyes.

“Forgive me!” said the bearded man in a weak voice, when he saw that the King was awake and was looking at him.

“I do not know you, and have nothing to forgive you for,” said the King.

“You do not know me, but I know you. I am that enemy of yours who swore to revenge himself on you, because you executed his brother and seized his property. I knew you had gone alone to see the hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But the day passed and you did not return. So I came out from my ambush to find you, and I came upon your bodyguard, and they recognized me, and wounded me. I escaped from them, but should have bled to death had you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, and you have saved my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful slave, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!”

The King was very glad to have made peace with his enemy so easily, and to have gained him for a friend, and he not only forgave him, but said he would send his servants and his own physician to attend him, and promised to restore his property.

Having taken leave of the wounded man, the King went out into the porch and looked around for the hermit. Before going away he wished once more to beg an answer to the questions he had put. The hermit was outside, on his knees, sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before.

The King approached him, and said:

“For the last time, I pray you to answer my questions, wise man.”

“You have already been answered!” said the hermit, still crouching on his thin legs, and looking up at the King, who stood before him.

“How answered? What do you mean?” asked the King.

“Do you not see,” replied the hermit. “If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug those beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business. Remember then: there is only one time that is important—Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”


Project Gutenberg’s What Men Live By and Other Tales, by Leo Tolstoy

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at

Title: What Men Live By and Other Tales Author: Leo Tolstoy

Translator: L. and A. Maude Release Date: June 13, 2009 [EBook #6157]

Last Updated: November 26, 2012 Language: English Character set encoding: UTF-8


Feb 29, 2020


About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

Stay Up to Date

Rise above the tedium with the TreeHouseLetter. Always learning with a bit of fun.

Latest Posts

Dirtman and Dillard on Signs of the Apocalypse

5 Min read Earthquake Eclipse 1 Essay rec AVAILABLE ON PODCAST SPOTIFY * “And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;” Revelation 6:12 * Earthquake...

The Blue Hour

3 Min read Phases of twilight 2 Book recs 5 Regrets of the Dying * It is the darkness which gives that first burst of light its brilliance. * This weekend my daughter returned from spring break. Sitting in the TreeHouse very early that day, I read with a booklight on...

Deez Nuts*

5 Min read Nuts Nonsense Homage to a classic film Wordnerd alert Contronym AVAILABLE ON PODCAST Spotify * One secret of life is that the reason life works at all is that not everyone in your tribe is nuts on the same day. Anne Lamott * I was organizing the pantry...

Who Does Not Prefer Civility to Barbarism?*

6 Min read 2 Book recs Average of five people you know Affection, love between parent and child Mrs. Fidget, a character trope AVAILABLE ON PODCAST Spotify Every Action done in Company ought to be with Some Sign of Respect to those that are Present. George...

What Men Live By*

8 Min read 1 Short Story 1 Lecture series, The Four Loves On Providence A sacred oath * AVAILABLE ON PODCAST Spotify * Friday was a cold, sunny day. The alarm was set for 6:15 AM and that would give me enough time to make it across the Hudson River before rush hour. I...

How to Improve Your Writing – Part 1: from Tolstoy to Grohl

9 min read 1 English textbook 1 Book rec 1 Style Guide 4 Writers: Tolstoy to Grohl (of Nirvana and Foo Fighters) Improve writing immediately, ages 9 to 99 Toolbox AVAILABLE ON PODCAST Spotify * I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of...


Inoculate yourself against the absurdity of life with a dose of the best ideas and writing. Always learning with a bit of fun.


Always learning with a bit of fun



Readers receive one to two letters a week, with 2 to 10 minute read time. Includes regular features:


The Music in Prose
Poetry for Emergencies



Be inspired by the best writing and ideas, and become better readers and writers in the process.

Thank you for joining! Please check your email for a confirmation.