The Four Prescriptions

Arthur Gordon shares a wonderful, intimate story of his own spiritual renewal in a little story called “The Turn of the Tide.” It tells of a time in his life when he began to feel that everything was stale and flat. His enthusiasm waned; his writing efforts were fruitless. And the situation was growing worse day by day.

Finally, he determined to get help from a medical doctor. Observing nothing physically wrong, the doctor asked him if he would be able to follow his instructions for one day.

When Gordon replied that he could, the doctor told him to spend the following day in the place where he was happiest as a child. He could take food, but he was not to talk to anyone or to read or write or listen to the radio. He then wrote out four prescriptions and told him to open one at nine, twelve, three, and six o’clock.

“Are you serious?” Gordon asked him.

“You won’t think I’m joking when you get my bill!” was the reply.

So the next morning, Gordon went to the beach. As he opened the first prescription, he read “Listen carefully.” He thought the doctor was insane. How could he listen for three hours? But he had agreed to follow the doctor’s orders, so he listened.

He heard the usual sounds of the sea and the birds. After a while, he could hear the other sounds that weren’t so apparent at first. As he listened, he began to think of lessons the sea had taught him as a child—patience, respect, an awareness of the interdependence of things. He began to listen to the sounds—and the silence—and to feel a growing peace.

At noon, he opened the second slip of paper and read “Try reaching back.” “Reaching back to what?” he wondered. Perhaps to childhood, perhaps to memories of happy times. He thought about his past, about the many little moments of joy. He tried to remember them with exactness. And in remembering, he found a growing warmth inside.

At three o’clock, he opened the third piece of paper. Until now, the prescriptions had been easy to take. But this one was different; it said “Examine your motives.”

At first he was defensive. He thought about what he wanted—success, recognition, security, and he justified them all. But then the thought occurred to him that those motives weren’t good enough, and that perhaps therein was the answer to his stagnant situation.

He considered his motives deeply. He thought about past happiness. And at last, the answer came to him.

“In a flash of certainty,” he wrote, “I saw that if one’s motives are wrong, nothing can be right. It makes no difference whether you are a mailman, a hairdresser, an insurance salesman, a housewife—whatever. As long as you feel you are serving others, you do the job well. When you are concerned only with helping yourself, you do it less well—a law as inexorable as gravity.”

When six o’clock came, the final prescription didn’t take long to fill. “Write your worries on the sand,” it said. He knelt and wrote several words with a piece of broken shell; then he turned and walked away. He didn’t look back; he knew the tide would come in.

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