What can Franz Kafka’s parable, written in 1915, tell us?
Before the Law
Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” At the moment the gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.”
What exactly is “the law?” I’m sure it’s something real, but it doesn’t matter. Alfred Hitchcock once said that every movie is a search for the MacGuffin. Every character in the story lives or dies in relation to quest for the MacGuffin.
How often have you confronted a gatekeeper? That mysterious person with unknown power. They appear to hold the key you need. Their power emanates from the knowledge you need. Knowledge they often don’t possess. Their greatest power comes from your insecurity. The gatekeeper represents your desire to stay safe, risk nothing, step back. Thank God that gatekeeper’s there! Otherwise, I’d have to actually step through that gate, without any obstacle to block me.
The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside.
The gatekeeper isn’t there to grant permission. Access isn’t his to grant. Our hero focuses so intently on every last detail of the gatekeeper that he gets to avoid thinking about what lies beyond the gate. The biggest challenges in life aren’t delivered in the first step but in the thousandth.
The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end, he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet.
Status quo is warm and comfy. Pursuing the mundane is safe. Busying ourselves with the day-to-day tasks gives us something to do, but doesn’t move us any closer to what lies beyond the next gate.
The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.”
All the preparation in the world is meaningless without the desire to put that preparation to work. To take what you’ve learned and test it in the real world. To learn the real lessons that come from experience. To make the mistakes that can cost you everything…and nothing. To risk real failure, and real triumph is what makes life most interesting.
During the many years, the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud, later, as he grows old, he still mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper.
How long have you waited for someone to pick you? How long have you waited for your stars to align? Stars are part of a perfectly ordered and yet totally chaotic system. Their alignment is rare and temporary at best.
There are about 6 billion of us on this planet. The law of averages (and large numbers) works against us being picked. More likely, our small piece of the world is waiting for us to choose, and run in that direction.
The gatekeeper isn’t good or evil. He has only one function. To guard the gate, and warn us about the challenges that may lie ahead. Nothing more, nothing less.
Finally, his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death, he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body.
We don’t have to grow old for our vision to fail. That can happen at any age. It’s easy to lose focus. It’s easy to find darkness in the midst of all the light. We each have beacons of light to guide us if we choose to look in their direction.
The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know, then?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.
Woe is me! I’m the only person in pain. I’m the only person with these challenges. I’m the only person struggling. The world is so unfair. The deck is stacked against me. Get over yourself!
Never assume you’re the only one struggling. I saw a quote from That Gratitude Guy (look him up) recently that said, “Never compare your inside to their outside.” Excellent advice.
Each of us has a path to follow. Sometimes it’s smooth. Sometimes not. We will encounter obstacles on our journey and even more gatekeepers.
The most powerful gatekeeper of all is fear and the stories we tell to hide it.
No one else can overcome your fear. That task is assigned only to you.
Photo Credit: Unsplash, Joshua Earle. Why this photo? Why not a photo of a gate, a bureaucrat, darkness, or fear itself? This photo reflects a beacon of light and an “impossible” next step. Here’s hoping he finds his way past fear and towards the light.