I have heard the following thought experiment countless times, albeit from different people: you can save your family (including you), or you can save everyone but your family (with the exception of you). Hard choices like this, although usually not as dramatic, often draw out one’s true personality. In the book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, the main character, Minli, and her friend Dragon are trying to change both their fortunes by visiting the Old Man of the Moon; a mythological figure who is said to control the fate of all humans. However, when she discovers that she can only have one question and one answer, Minli is forced to make a choice: she can either change her own fortune, or she can change that of one of her closest friends.
Minli and Dragon both didn’t have very good fortunes. Minli’s village never saw any rain, so farming was extremely hard; the villagers barely got by in everyday life. Dragon was a little more lucky - he was a dragon, after all - but for some reason unbeknownst to him, he couldn’t fly like other dragons could. Both wished to change the bad conditions they felt they were living in.
When they finally get to the Old Man of the Moon, however, he delivers some grave news: Minli can only ask one question. Now Minli is faced with a choice: she can either change her own fortune, or Dragon’s. Although this was forshadowed when Dragon found that the bridge to the Old Man of the Moon could not hold her weight–only Minli’s–it still came as a shock to her when the Old Man of the Moon revealed the grim truth. However, Minli suddenly remembers the words of her friends Da-Fu and A-Fu: “Why would we want to change our fortune?” Then she sees the legendary paper which supposedly held the secret to happiness: and it read “thankfulness.” She realizes that perhaps why Da-Fu and A-Fu didn’t want to change their fortune was because they were already satisfied with everything they had; they didn’t need more. Minli finds herself thinking that perhaps her fortune doesn’t need to be changed either. So, without doubt or hesitance, she asks the Old Man of the Moon, “Why can’t Dragon fly?”
It turns out, the pearl on top of Dragon’s head was somehow weighing him down. Minli pulled it off his head, and together, they flew home. Coincidentally, Minli’s father had told her mother a story about a dragon pearl, so the next morning, they were shocked that Minli actually came home with one. And then, after their happy reunion, the villagers’ lives took an even better turn when the Fruitless Mountain started blossoming again. Why? Well, a story that people once thought was just a legend said that a dragon called the Jade Dragon was the master of all rain. However, when her children sacrificed themselves because Jade Dragon was being cruel and holding grudges, she was filled with grief and descended to the ground as a river, hoping to reunite with one of her children. However, this never happened, which is why Fruitless Mountain remained fruitless; it had been cursed by Jade Dragon. Long story short, it turned out that Dragon was one of Jade Dragon’s children, and since he had been reunited with one of his children, the curse on the Fruitless Mountain was lifted. Minli’s village began to prosper again, and after her parents sold the dragon pearl to a king–The Guardian of the City of the Bright Moonlight, to be exact–the village was able to get the material it needed to properly farm. Minli thought to herself, “I had not asked the Old Man of the Moon any of my questions; yet, they have all been answered.” I’m sure that if Minli had asked her question, the Old Man of the Moon would have told her to be thankful.
When we make choices, it shows a lot about us. One of my favorite trilogies, Divergent, centers on this topic. At the top of every book, there’s a catchphrase that relates to choices, and on the cover of the last book, Allegiant, the words written on it are: “One choice will define you.” And it will– this is demonstrated in Minli’s story. When Minli chose to ask Dragon’s question instead of her own, she demonstrated that she had attained arguably one of the most important virtues in everyday life: thankfulness. If you had truly mastered this virtue: you could make a choice when asked thought experiment questions in a second. For example, the thought experiment at the beginning: if you were truly thankful, you would be satisfied with how you had lived your life, and you wouldn’t want more. So, you would obviously go with the second choice. This not only demonstrates the importance of thankfulness in itself, it also shows that thankfulness is a crucial part of making good choices: one of the most important skills to master in life.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. New York: Little Brown Young Readers, 2009.