798px-1-Green_peasOnce Abba Agatho was going on a journey with his disciples. And one of them found a tiny bag of green peas on the road, and said to the old man: “Father, if you command, I will take it.” The old man gazed at him in astonishment, and said: “Did you put it there?” The brother replied: “No.” And the old man said: “How is it that you want to take something that you did not put there?”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 4.8

The conventional wisdom in the above situation, or at least my own first impulse, would be that if someone finds something that is not his/hers in the road, the proper thing to do is to take it and seek out the rightful owner. If no owner can be found, then finder’s keepers. There is an important lesson here, however.

In one sense, Abba Agatho may simply be saying to leave the tiny bag of green peas on the road because the rightful owner may come back looking for it. One could not exactly put up signs with one’s email address or phone number in the Egyptian desert in the fourth century.

On the other hand, given that the story emphasizes how small the bag of peas was, calling it “tiny,” it would seem so incidentally small that no reasonable person would journey through the desert to come looking for it, and so I think it would ultimately be an uncharitable reading of this story to presume that that was Abba Agatho’s concern.

Instead, I think perhaps he is getting at something else. This is a lesson about self-control. Perhaps this was some poor person’s last ration of food for the week, or perhaps it was lost and not missed. Perhaps if the monk took it he could find the rightful owner and do a good deed, but perhaps not. Perhaps it would not be wrong to take the peas and eat them, but perhaps it would. Instead of acting out of ignorance, we ought not to act at all.

Furthermore, as Abba Agatho says, “How is it that you want to take something that you did not put there?” What can a person in this situation know? One can, at least, know that the thing belongs to someone else and that it was put there, even if by accident, by someone else. Acknowledging one’s ignorance helps to focus on the little knowledge that one has. The best, informed decision for this disciple in this case was to leave the peas where he found them.

There is, I think, a third point that could be mentioned, even if it may be stretching the story a bit. Among the many things that one does not know is whether or not someone else better equipped for the job will come along. Another important matter of self-restraint is learning how to limit oneself, even when one may have the talent necessary to do something good. Just because I can do something, does not mean that no one else can do that same thing just as well or even better. Instead, I ought to focus first of all on my own salvation and fulfill the duties entrusted to me.

This last point is one I must constantly remember. In the right circumstances, I often have a lot that I can say; I have read a lot and have learned a lot. But I am not the world’s teacher, much less even my neighbor’s teacher. I write and research as part of my job; I write this blog as a personal outlet and am happy that others read it from time to time. Indeed, it is a wonderful thing to be able to share all that with others. But sometimes I just need to get over myself and keep my mouth shut.

Sometimes, for example, there is a news story or conversation or new book or whatever, and in every case I am tempted to weigh in, as if the world is waiting for me to impart some unique and indispensable wisdom. But that is all rooted in a fallacy. I am always imagining that if I do not speak, write, or whatever, then who will? The honest (and logical) answer: Who knows? Someone else? No one else? The fact of the matter is that I cannot know, and it is presumptuous for me to act as if I did. More than that, it is arrogant. If I act, I should do so out of love, not self-importance. But such silence—to employ a wholly inappropriate idiom—is easier said than done. But it truly can be “done,” this I do know, if only I continue to learn self-control through daily discipline.