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“Once upon a time there were a fisherman and his wife who lived in a hovel by the sea.” So begins a story by the Brothers Grimm, a story not as well known as “Cinderella” or “Hansel and Gretel,” or many of their other tales, but just as lasting in its own right. The fisherman, living in wretched poverty, sees his luck change when he nets a large, exquisite fish early one morning. This fish speaks to him.

“Let me live,” he cries out, “for I am no ordinary flounder. I am a magician who can grant you anything you ask. Set me free and I will give you whatever you wish.” The fisherman thinks about this proposition for a moment, and decides to ask the fish for a proper house to replace his shack. After releasing his catch, the fisherman returns home to find a perfect little cottage standing in place of the former hovel.

He and his wife are elated at their good fortune and enjoy the cottage immensely — for a while. “Go back and ask the fish for land and a farm,” the fisherman’s wife insists as she rises one morning. The fisherman complies, returns to the sea, and after conjuring the magic fish from the depths, makes his request. Miraculously, it is granted again.

Thus begins a cycle of demands: A castle, later an estate, then to be queen over the land, and empress over the continent. Eventually, the fisherman’s wife even asks to be the Pope. Each time the fisherman registers his objection, but then slinks off to the sea to ask for the next fish-induced miracle.

At the end, the fisherman’s wife makes the most audacious request of all: “I want command over the sun and the moon.” With quaking knees the fisherman returns to the sea, which is foaming, boiling angry with the colors of green and gray. The fish rises to the surface and says to the fisherman, “I know what your wife requests. Go home. She has what she needs.” The fisherman returns home to find his wife sitting in their original hovel once again.

The lesson is obvious, and it’s not a moralizing sermon about simple greed. Rather, it’s about fulfillment — the lack of it, actually — and the proclivity of human beings to trade obvious satisfaction for discontent. Most of us have what we need to be happy and satisfied. Yes, a little more money at the end of the month would be helpful, but happiness is rarely achievable by a mere reordering of one’s circumstances or boosting one’s earning potential.

The disease of wanting “more” can’t be cured by getting more of anything — more power, money, holdings, or bank accounts. If one remains on such a quest, he or she will never scratch that seemingly unreachable itch of the soul. Rather, happiness is internal work, an inside job, and only when one learns to be at peace within, can he or she find satisfaction in the world without.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, speaker, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at ronniemcbrayer.org. 

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