I want to share a story with you. Some of you (perhaps most of you) will have heard it before. It’s an old story, probably about as old as the hills, and there are many versions of it, but they all carry the same message.

All the versions of the story agree…

It started with a wise man. This man was so wise and so intelligent, that he invented a new game, to be played on a board, 8 squares by 8 squares, with two colors alternating on the board. The new game, he called Chaturanga, and it was the great-grandfather of the more modern game of chess.

At that time, in India, there was an emperor, a man that some versions of the story say was a tyrant, or maybe he was just a bad ruler. What the versions agree on is that the common people were starving, while the emperor enjoyed playing games.

His favorite game was the newest one, Chaturanga, the creation of one of his wise men. He loved the game so much that he offered the wise man anything he wanted as a reward for inventing it.

Image by stevepb

The wiseman cared about the people. He knew that what he wanted most was to take care of the kingdom. But how to do it in a way that the ruler would agree with?

A Single Grain of Rice

As he looked at the chess board, he had an idea. “I would like to have a grain of rice placed on the first square of the chessboard,” he said. “Then two on the next one, and then four. Each square will have double the rice of the one beside it.”

The emperor felt that was much too small of a gift for such a great game, but the wise man was insistent and so, the emperor said, “Let it be done.”

Here the versions of the story split again, but my favorite continues about a week later, when the emperor was served his meal, but no rice was included. “Where is my rice?” the irate ruler demanded, and called his steward to him. The steward said that the cook hadn’t sent any.

Image by ArtificialOG

Calling the cook in, the emperor was told that the granary had been out of rice. This, the emperor thought, must surely be a mistake. It was an impossibility!

And so, the overseer of the granary was called. Trembling, the man cowered before the emperor and told him, “You, yourself told me to go give it all away.”

Rushing to explain, he told of a wise man visiting him with a signed edict from the emperor, ordering the overseer to put 1 grain of rice on the chessboard.

The emperor nodded at this, after all, it had barely been a week since the game’s creator had asked for such a small reward that he had almost been embarrassed to write out the order.

“So,” the poor man continued, “I put first one grain, then two…”

“And four, and eight,” the emperor waved his hands, rushing the story along. “But that doesn’t explain why there is no rice for me.”

“But sir,” the man kept his head bowed as he spoke, “by the time we reached the end of the second row, I had to count out over 32,000 grains of rice. The next square took over 65 thousand. And it kept going up. It has taken almost this entire week just to count out the first three rows. And now we’re out of rice. There isn’t a single grain left in any of your granaries.”

The emperor called for a chessboard. He sat there, counting the squares, adding the numbers, growing angrier and angrier, his face turning redder and redder, until he fell over, dead.

The overseer had not told the complete story, of how the wiseman, who had grown tired of seeing his people starving, was taking the rice, not for himself, but to feed all those who didn’t have anything else. For a week, the people had been eating the emperor’s rice.

So Why Am I Sharing This Story With You?

Yesterday, my husband and I went out grocery shopping. As we stopped at the pet section to get liter for our cat, there was a lady complaining loudly about people worried about getting sick with the Coronavirus when “China is already over it.”

I wanted to say something, to explain that it’s not a fear of getting sick. It’s about the fact that this virus has been shown to double on average, every six days. And at that rate, just like the granary, without measures in place to slow down how quickly it’s spread, we’re going to run out of time, and find our granaries empty, our hospital beds overrun and so few supplies that doctors will have to choose between saving a young father or an older grandfather.

Current cases as of 9:27 March 14 (Image of live map at John Hopkins)

Our goal now, should be in trying to double, and then double again, the time it takes for the number of cases to reach the next chessboard square.

So friends, when I say be careful, I’m not saying, “Don’t catch this.” We’re past the point of stopping it from spreading, I fear. What I’m really saying is, “Take all precautions you have it in your power to take. Don’t live your life in fear, but let wisdom and understanding guide you. And always, always wash your hands.”

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