Ox Mountain

Omar, aged eighty-three, loved the Mariners and ship traffic passing on the Sound.  Time eroded Omar’s memory.  He forgot cooking.  The washer stumped him.  Unfortunately, Omar’s attorney (call him Smutch) “helped” Omar.  Smutch made Omar’s son-in-law (call him Dolt) Omar’s legal agent. Dolt, with Smutch’s assistance, pilfered Omar’s ready cash.  Then Smutch helped Dolt refinance Omar’s residence, so Dolt could “manage” what remained of Omar’s funds.  Omar found out.  He came to me.  I confronted Smutch, who lied.  I brought the problem before the court.  So, Smutch lied to the court.  Smutch, it appears, lies better than I tell the truth.  The court waffled.  Our judge appointed a guardian to wrest Omar’s money from Dolt.  The guardian did not.  Omar grew depressed, suffered strokes, and died.  Even in the grave, Smutch “helped” Omar one last time.  Smutch encouraged Dolt and his sister to contest Omar’s Will, which left them nothing.  The dim duo snatched most of Omar’s estate from those Omar loved.

How did Smutch get to be Smutch?  He was not born evil crud.  Boy Smutch, undoubtedly, was the apple of his mother’s eye: smart, cute, promising, studious, earnest.  What happened? What cataclysms left Smutch a moral cripple? I was baffled.  Years later,I read the parable of Ox Mountain.  Mencius (5th century B.C.) battled Hsun Tzu, who believed men evil.  Mencius disagreed:  men are innately good.  By Ox Mountain, Mencius explains human corruption.

Ox Mountain lay beneath a verdant umbrella of trees near a city.  Exuberant foliage burst from its slopes.  But humans encroached. Men axed trees.  Sheep and cattle grazed.  Resilient, Ox Mountain sprouted new shoots and grasses.  Scythes and herds returned.  Then yet more people and flocks.  Soon, Ox Mountain grew barren.  Still, hordes came.  Livestock stomped roots.  Men trampled earth.  Soil trickled off precipices.  Dust blew from corpses of meadows.  Only a bare, rocky knuckle remained.  Nothing could ever grow.  Mencius said: “Can what is in man be completely lacking in moral inclinations?  A man’s letting go of his true heart is like the case of the trees and the axes. . . .   Given the right nourishment there is nothing that will not grow, and deprived of it there is nothing that will not wither away.. . .   It is perhaps to the heart this refers.”

Smutch made himself Ox Mountain--overgrazed and eroded.  To Mencius, Smutch seethes no elemental evil.  Smutch grew incapable of goodness.  For us who must cope with life’s Smutches, this seems a distinction without much difference.  Smutch let life corrode his true heart; a scorched knob remains.  Mencius would argue even Smutch’s perversity portends good.  Smutch makes his life an object lesson for Ox Mountain.  Smutch’s existence, like red-emblazoned freeway signs, warns people headed onto life’s off-ramp: WRONG WAY.

To preserve a functioning conscience is one of life’s subtle and elusive tasks.  Smutches help.  If you find yourself behaving like your Smutch, change course.