The Principle of Well-Timed Action
“Do not oppose a great force. Retreat until it weakens, then advance with resolution.”
Note that this Principle does not recommend that we retreat when faced with the little inconveniences or problems we run into every day. We should only retreat, the Principle explains, when facing a force that is too strong, one that will surely overwhelm us if we confront it. Retreating before little difficulties weakens people, it makes them timid and afraid. Refusing to retreat before great forces, in contrast, inclines people toward all kinds of failures and accidents.
The problem appears when you do not know ahead of time which has more strength, you or the difficulty. In this case it is good to try little “tests,” confronting the difficulty in small ways that don’t completely commit one. This leaves room to change one’s position if it turns out to be unsustainable. In earlier times people used to speak of “prudence,” and this is very close to what we are speaking of.
Another key point is the question of when to move forward. Should we advance when has the difficulty lost its strength, or when have we ourselves gained enough strength to overcome it? Here we can use the same idea of trying little “tests” every so often to check, without committing ourselves completely.
When we do find that the balance of strength is in our favor and the inconvenience has weakened, that is the time we should advance with all our strength. To hold back our reserves in this situation will endanger our success, because we are not advancing with all the energy we have available.
Here is a legend that illustrates this Principle:
Once there was a poor old fisherman who had three sons. He was in the habit of casting his nets into the water only four times a day. One day among many days, after having dragged the river twice in vain, he felt great joy upon noticing that the third time, the net weighed a great deal, so much that he could hardly pull it in.
He couldn’t have been more disappointed when he saw that his catch consisted of a dead ass that some thoughtless neighbor had thrown in the water. Loudly lamenting his bad luck as prepared to cast the net for the fourth time, he said “The goodness of Allah is infinite. Who knows, this time I may have more luck!”
When he pulled in the net, he noticed again that it weighed very much, and opening it, he found a huge cup sealed with a metal plate. He removed the metal plate and emptied the cup, which was full of mud. He was looking all around him, thinking about taking it home to sell to some smelter, when a column of smoke began to rise from the cup. The smoke grew and thickened until it took the form of a genie of gigantic proportions. His forehead was as high as a cupola. His hands as big as mountain steppes, his mouth as black as a cavern, his eyes as brilliant as torches, and his legs as long as tall trees.
Trembling with fear at the sight of t he monster, the fisherman tried to flee, but the genie’s voice, booming like thunder, paralyzed him.
“There is no other god but Allah, and Solomon is the prophet of Allah!” exclaimed the genie.
Then he immediately added, “And you, oh great Solomon, Prophet of Allah, command me. I am at your disposal, and I will obey you immediately.”
“Oh powerful genie!” replied the fisherman. “What are you saying? You are perhaps unaware that Solomon has been dead for more than one thousand eight hundred years? Are you perhaps unaware that Mohammed came as the prophet of Allah? Are you trying to make fun of me or are you crazy?”
“What!? Me, crazy!? By Allah I swear to you that if you offend me again, I will have to kill you!”
“Would you be capable of doing that, oh genie? After I freed you from your prison?”
“Hear my story, fisherman,” said the genie, “And you will understand that my threat is not in vain.”
“You should know that I am a rebellious genie. My name is Shar; all of my species gave obedience to Solomon, except me. I escaped so as not to submit myself to him. But a vizier sent a persecutor who imprisoned me and led me enchained into his presence. When I was before Solomon, he asked me to accept his religion. Because I refused, he had me placed in that cup in which you found me in. He sealed it with his seal, and ordered it thrown into the sea. The first century of being locked in that narrow prison, I swore I would make my liberator immortal. But nobody freed me. During the second century I thought of making my benefactor master of the richest treasures. And nobody came. In the third century I promised that he who would liberate me would have my power, my strength, and my wisdom; but this too was in vain. So, giving free vent to my anger, I swore that I would kill the man who would give me back my freedom. That man is you, and no one can free you from my vengeance.”
“But if you kill me, oh genie,” replied the fisherman, “You will commit an injustice for which Allah will never pardon you, because you repay with a crime the good I did in freeing you. Besides, consider that I am married and have three sons who cannot even take care of themselves.”
Nothing seemed to soften the giant, whose immense visage grew more and more ferocious. The fisherman knew his fate depended on his cleverness, so he devised a strategy that he held onto the way a shipwrecked man clings to a plank that passes on the crest of a wave.
“Have you really decided to give me death?” asked the fisherman.
“Of course,” responded the monster.
“Well then, before you commit that injustice, I would like you to relieve me of a doubt.”
“Speak quickly since we are wasting much time.”
“You say you were inside that cup; but that cannot be true. How could you fit into it, if one of my hands can scarcely enter it? Only seeing you do that will I believe that you can.
“Ah! So you have no confidence in me, do you? Well then, I’ll show you, and then I will kill you with even more delight, incredulous and unbelieving fisherman.”
The fisherman’s response was to quickly replace the cover on the cup. At first, seeing himself imprisoned anew, the genie screamed and threatened; then he pleaded. But the fisherman paid no attention to his pleas and threats. Taking the cup he pretended he would throw it into the water. In this way, a new oath was wrung from the genie that he would be forced to fulfill after recovering his freedom. Thus the fisherman could benefit from it for himself and for others. But that is part of another story.