Unable to sleep late one night last week I turned on the TV and started channel surfing. To my pleasant surprise I came across a rerun of David Carradine’s early 1970s classic, Kung Fu. Nestling into my pillows and watching, I eventually drifted off to sleep with images of Cain, Master Po, and current events mingling in my subconscious….
Cain: “I am troubled, Master.”
Po: “What ails you, my son?”
Cain: “How does one tell the difference between a true and a false prophet?”
Po: “Ah, a worthy question, Grasshopper. And one man has wrestled with across the centuries. Why does one so young worry of such things?”
Cain: “It’s this new disease, Master. I know it has infected many and killed many, and there are those who fear its virulence, saying life as we knew it is changed forever. Yet I also know many more are not prone to the disease, most who contract it show no symptoms at all, and there are some who say ‘this, too, shall pass.’ To whom should I listen?”
Master Po sat in silence for a moment. Then he tilted his head back, inhaled deeply, and spoke. “Grasshopper, what are those green leaves at our feet?”
Cain, marveling: “Master, how is it that you, who are blind, know not only what is on the ground but its color?”
Po, smiling: “Blind I may be, but do I not know that the surrounding hills are full of terraced tea farms? And can I not feel the wind on my skin? And can I not smell the fragrance around us? And did I not hear the leaves softly crackling beneath your bare feet when you approached? How can I not know there are green tea leaves here?”
Cain, chastened: “I see, my master.”
Po: “I hope you do, Grasshopper. And I have another question for you. Do you know the difference between an Oracle and a Prophet?”
Cain: “Do they not both foretell the future?”
Po: “Not exactly. An Oracle looks at the signs in front of him – these tea leaves for example – and reveals what he sees. While the Oracle may act on what he sees, whether or not others do is of no consequence to him. The Oracle deals with the reality in front of him with no thought of persuasion.”
“The Prophet, on the other hand, is in the business of persuasion. Believing he is delivering a message of doom if unheeded, the Prophet seeks to motivate listeners to action. Whereas the Oracle is unconcerned if anyone responds to his message, the Prophet feels he has failed if they do not.”
“Consider, for example, the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett. The Oracle read the tea leaves at the end of February and proceeded to purchase nearly one million shares of Delta Airlines at a 20 percent discount to its price one week earlier. One of the Oracle’s mottos is ‘be greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy,’ and this seemed to be a classic case of Mr. Buffett keeping his cool when Mr. Market overreacted.”
“As the tea leaves changed, the Oracle realized they were delivering a different message. By the end of April, he had sold not only the new shares he purchased in late February, but every single share of stock he owned in Delta, American, United, and Southwest. Coming from the ultimate ‘buy and hold’ investor, that is an impressive about face in a short time. It shows Mr. Buffett knows not to fall in love with an investment, is willing to admit when he is wrong, and responds to what he sees happening in front of him, not what he thought would happen. The Oracle tried to convince no one else to buy or sell when he did, he simply responded to the picture painted by the evidence in front of him.”
“Now consider by contrast the Prophet, perhaps a Doctor in D.C., or a Director-General in Geneva. The Prophet believes, perhaps with sincere intent, he has a message the world needs to hear. If his directives are not followed, the world will suffer the consequences. Yet, unlike the Oracle, who is able to adapt from what he thought would happen to what actually does, it is more difficult for the Prophet, as he has taken a very public stand. Thus, the Prophet often seems to ignore what is really happening around him when it doesn’t coincide to what he thought would or should.”
Cain: “Yes, but Master, if I may be so bold, perhaps the warning of the Prophet is right but has not come to pass just yet. How do I know if the passage of time will vindicate the Prophet? How do I know how to tell the True Prophet from the False?”
Po: “What you say is true. The Prophet may be vindicated over time. Or he may be exposed. One cannot know. However, Grasshopper, remember this. Most true prophets are reluctant ones. They do not seek out the limelight, indeed, often do not even wish to be prophets. They deliver their messages obediently but reluctantly, preferring to return to their former stations when their work is done. When you see a prophet who seeks out the spotlight, beware, as he may be false.”
Cain: “Master, you are wise. And I have much yet to learn.”
Po: “I have lived long, my son. Now return to your task. And do not worry. You have your life in front of you, and everything you need to make your own decisions.”
PS: I’d like to thank Governor Reeves for re-opening the Mississippi economy. I can’t think of a better gift for the people of the state.
Kelley Williams Jr. is a Northsider.