A certain good woman one day said something that hurt her best friend of many years. She regretted it immediately and would have done anything to have taken the words back. But they were said impulsively in a moment of thoughtlessness, and as close as she and her friend were, she didn’t consider the effects of her words beforehand.
What she said hurt the friend so much that this good woman was herself hurt for the pain she caused. In her effort to undo what she had done, she went to an older, wiser woman in the village, explained her situation, and asked for advice.
The older woman listened patiently in an effort to determine just how sincere the younger woman was, and how far she was willing to go to correct the situation. She explained that sometimes, in order to put things back in order, great efforts must be made.
She then asked, “Just what would you be willing to do to repair the harm done?” The answer was heartfelt. “Anything!”
Listening to her, the older woman sensed the younger woman’s distress and knew she must help her. She also knew she could never alleviate her pain by living her life for her, but she could teach, if the younger woman would first listen and then learn. She knew the outcome would depend solely on the character of the younger woman.
She said, “There are two things you need to do to make amends. The first of the two is extremely difficult. Tonight, take your best feather pillows and open a small hole in each one. Then, before the sun rises, you must put a single feather on the doorstep of each house in town. When you are through, come back to me. If you’ve done the first thing completely, then I’ll tell you the second.”
The young woman hurried home to prepare for her chore, even though the pillows were very dear to her and very expensive. All night long, she labored alone in the cold. She went from doorstep to doorstep, taking care not to overlook a single house. Her fingers were frozen, and the wind was so sharp it caused her eyes to water, but she ran on through the darkened streets, thankful there was something she could do to put things back the way they once were.
Finally, as the sky was getting light, she placed the last feather on the steps of the last house. Just as the sun rose, she returned to the older woman. She was exhausted but relieved that her efforts would be rewarded. “My pillows are empty. I placed a feather on the doorstep of each home.”
“Now,” said the wise woman, “Go back and re-fill your pillows. Then everything will be as it was before.”
The young woman was stunned. “You know that’s impossible! The wind blew away each feather as fast as I placed them on the doorsteps! You didn’t say I had to get them back! If this is the second requirement, then things will never be the same.”
“That’s true,” said the older woman. “Never forget. Each of your words is like a feather in the wind. Once spoken, no amount of effort, regardless how heartfelt or sincere, can ever return them to your mouth. Choose your words well and guard them most of all in the presence of those you love.”