There was a land that was on the edge of the highest of high cliffs. The people of this land toiled and worked and struggled to make a living. They made things and they grew things – they lived by the strength of their backs and the sweat of their brows.
This life made them strong and resilient and they were proud to tell outsiders that they lived on the edge. They were very competitive with each other and always tried to better one another. Despite this they considered themselves close-knit, probably because they were united by their dislike and suspicion of outsiders.
So you can imagine their consternation when a strange, silent young stranger occupied a deserted cabin in their land. They decided to check this guy out and it didn’t exactly put their minds at rest to discover that he was exiled from his previous land for treason and sedition. Apparently when he was a young boy, the king of his land had ordered a fabulous magical suit from some internationally renowned tailors. The enchantment of this fabulously expensive bejewelled garment was that if you were stupid the suit became invisible to you. The king subsequently appeared naked to this boy who was therefore clearly stupid, and instead of quietly admitting his disability went round shouting that the king “was in the altogether.” Fortunately despite rumours and fairy stories to the contrary, this disgraceful behaviour ceased when the heartbroken tailors gave him a good kicking and the king exiled him. Everyone watching acknowledged their own intelligence and admired the fine suit.
Now this boy – older and somewhat wiser – lived among the people on the edge and they weren’t happy. Sometimes they would challenge him to say something critical about them but he had learned his lesson and said nothing – which gave them no excuse to get rid of him.
Then one day there was a miraculous event. The people awoke one morning to discover that from the top of the cliff a small bridge had grown. At the other end of the bridge was a small pink fluffy cloud. For weeks people came and viewed the bridge but no one dared to set foot on it, but then one day two intrepid young men crossed the bridge into the pink cloud. In there they found a sunlit land with blue birds, rabbits, and trees laden with luscious fruit. On the ground were a scattering of precious gems and metals. The young men picked fruit and treasure and returned across the bridge a lot wealthier than they had been before. Soon more people crossed the bridge to harvest the bounty of the pink cloud. The people celebrated their luck and the only sour note was that the path to the bridge had to pass the strange young man’s cabin, and when he stood outside and watched them they felt he knew something they didn’t. Sometimes folk would challenge him to tell them.
“OK, what? Go on, what? What’s your problem?”
He would pull a face, shrug his sad shoulders, and disappear back behind his front door.
A strange thing about the bridge and the cloud was that the more they were used the bigger they grew. The bridge became a magnificent sight to see and the cloud was huge, and so was the land inside it. In the land was a very beautiful kind of tree that had been in blossom ever since the place had been discovered. The people had wondered what fabulous fruit it would bear. Finally the tree produced large pods which, before anyone could pick them, erupted into coloured fans. On closer inspection it was clear that these fans were wads of money. Everyone laughed – their parents had always said, “money doesn’t grow on trees.” Well now it did! People surged across the bridge with barrow-loads of cash, treasure and fruits. Again the only downside was that young man, just watching.
With so much wealth literally falling from the trees, why break your back in the fields, wear your fingers to the bone at the lathe, or sweat your life away in a kitchen? People in far-off lands who mainly survived by growing stuff and eating it, wanted a share of this wealth, so they either sold their crops to the people on the edge, or they started making things for them – or they moved to the edge themselves and did the toiling for a handful of cash.
The people on the edge realised that all this success could be attributed to their superior intellect and that physical effort was far beneath them. They also knew that they never wanted their children to toil with their hands – intellect brings better rewards. So they built schools and colleges where the young could get intellect from the people who had chosen themselves to be professors.
One of these mighty brains prepared mathematical formulae which would show birds how to fly. He crossed the bridge and as the young bluebirds hatched from their eggs, he strutted about holding his lapels reciting this formula to them. A few weeks later, amazingly, the bluebirds flew. He was carried shoulder-high back across the bridge and given a big gold cup and his own university to be in charge of.
Another professor watched the bridge grow and could predict its size each day. The people would gather under his balcony at his university and he would say things like, “I predict bridge growth to be between 12 and 16 percent.” And the next day when it was clearly 15 percent bigger, he got a cup too!
Another amazing event happened. One day a man harvesting money in the fluffy cloud-land dropped a bundle down a rabbit hole. He didn’t notice until he got home and realised that he was short a bundle of money. He went back the next day and searched about the tree. Putting his hand down the rabbit hole, he realised that not only was the bundle of money there but it had doubled in size. For a while he tried putting the odd wad of cash in the rabbit holes and overnight they always doubled. He shared this secret with a very few friends and out of those few friends this phenomenon only worked for some of them, but that didn’t matter because those with the gift could double anyones’ money. These men declared themselves bankers or barons of the bridge. Soon the traffic had reversed and everyone was bringing home loads of cash back over the bridge to the cloud.
The young man just watched with that funny annoying puzzled look on his face.
The people from the foreign land were soon handing their cash to the bridge barons to have it doubled. The money doubled, the bridge doubled, and the pink fluffy cloud just grew huge. The more cash they piled into the rabbit holes, the bigger the cloud grew.
Then the people woke up one morning and the bridge had completely collapsed. It had cracked, and crumbled, and hundreds of pieces had tumbled into the gorge below. The people watched as the pink cloud, now not anchored to anything, started to drift with the wind which tugged and blew as little wisps and tendrils like candyfloss disappeared into the turbulent air. Before their very eyes it was pulled into smaller bits until it was gone as if it had never existed.
“We are ruined!” the horrified crowd exclaimed.
“All our wealth was in that cloud.”
“And so was ours” the people from the foreign land cried angrily. “We will have to go back to growing stuff again.”
The cry went up, “Why did the bridge collapse?”
The professors didn’t know despite their intellect. Then someone said, “I bet that sly kid knows why the bridge collapsed.”
A huge mob went up to the young man’s cabin. When he came out they cried, “Alright, smartarse, why did the bridge collapse?”
The young man sadly replied, “You foolish people, you are asking the wrong question. The question I have been asking myself every day – and what you should have asked yourselves – is not why it collapsed but why it stayed up. What was holding it up in the first place?”