One night a monkey chieftain looked down from his perch to see the reflection of the moon in the water below. Convinced the moon had fallen from the sky the chieftan ordered his tribe to link their arms and tails so that they may extend from the tree to the water below, returning the moon to the sky and preventing the world from falling into darkness. One by one they built a chain that reached all the way to the water, but their combined weight was too great for the branch to bear. The moon disappeared into the ripples of the water and all of the monkeys drowned. So goes the Chinese folktale, Yuanhou Zhuyue.
There are two widely accepted interpretations – one should not attempt what is clearly impossible, and the unenlightened mind is easily fooled by appearances. I would argue the latter is the better lesson. If we are fooled by appearances we may not be able to make a reasonable assessment about what is and is not impossible. The statement accompanying the Xu Bing sculpture, Monkeys Grasping For The Moon, at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. offers a slightly nuanced moral: “Those things we work hardest to achieve may prove to be naught but illusion.”
In our modern world the things we work hardest for are often intangible – happiness and security. When we reach our goal – the career we thought we’d love every day or the career that paid us the salary we were convinced would shield us from life’s uncertainties – we may discover that what we thought we wanted most is naught but illusion. Fulfillment comes from a willingness to be honest with ourselves about which goals are the right goals to pursue.