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City Year Founding Story: Sand Into Diamonds

Photo by Aishvarya Vasishta

Once upon a time, there lived a brave young pilot. This pilot flew all over the world to interesting lands, meeting interesting people. One night, as the pilot was flying high above the Sahara Desert, the engine of her plane suddenly stalled. Amazingly, she was able to eject from the plane and parachute to the ground.

As the pilot awoke the next day, she tried to remember what had happened the night before. As she regained her bearings, it dawned on her that she had no idea where she was, no idea where the closest village or human habitation was located. She could be hundreds of miles from the nearest desert village or it could be just around the nearest hill. She fought off the despair and gloom and tried to summon her usual resolve and courage. She knew one thing for certain: she had to get going in some direction, any direction. If she just stayed, she would surely die.

And so she started. Mile after mile. The brilliant desert sun was glaring down on her and reflecting off the searing sand. And she continued on. Eventually, the sun went down and she continued to walk through the night. She went as far as she could before resting. Soon, she woke to the morning sun once again. Her throat was parched. Her skin was dry and burnt. But she continued on. No food or drink. No water in sight. By noon she could continue no longer and collapsed. But no sooner had she fallen to the ground than a vision appeared before her.

At first she thought she was just delirious. But the image was so clear, so vivid, so real. And as it became clearer she realized it was a genie. And the genie spoke. “I will only say this once. Do not despair. Do not give up hope. Just listen and do as I say and you will survive. In the end, you will be both happy and sad. But first, reach down and pick up some sand. Heed my words and continue on.”

The genie disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. It must have been a mirage, thought the pilot. But it seemed so real. So vivid. And although the genie had spoken only briefly, the pilot remembered every word. It brought her a new sense of energy and hope.

She reached down and picked up a handful of sand and continued on. Mile after mile. The hot desert sun was ablaze in the sky. The heavy dry wind ripped over the land. She continued on. And when she once again reached the point where she could go no more, at the top of a dune, she fell and tumbled down the other side.

Lo and behold, she stumbled upon a village in an oasis. Upon seeing the condition of this unusual stranger emerging out of the desert, the natives came out to help her. They gave her water and rest and food. She had made it. She had survived.

Now that she was replenished, her thoughts drifted back to the mysterious vision from the night before. Was it real? She reached into her pocket to pull out the sand. To her great surprise the sand had turned to diamonds. As she thought back to the words of the genie, a smile crossed her face. “In the end you will be both happy and sad.”

Yes, she was happy. She had survived. And she had a handful of diamonds. Yet she was sad, because she had not picked up more sand.

– Author unknown, Adapted from “The Parable of the Pebbles”

Diamonds are made of pure carbon, an element that is fundamental to all life. Carbon is a common substance, yet diamonds are rare, precious, indestructible—the hardest substance on earth. This story of sand turning into diamonds exemplifies the way in which ordinary, everyday experiences become, over time, the source of our knowledge and strength.

The idealistic path is fraught with setbacks and frustrations. But every experience along the way, every struggle, even every mundane moment, provides us with a treasure trove of wisdom, ideas, and experience to draw upon further down the road. Invariably, there is little opportunity for perspective at the time of each experience, and little to which we can compare. For this reason, it is best to take in as much as possible from each experience and opportunity, to fill up your pockets with the “sand” of idealism, and to keep moving forward. Time and perspective will turn those experiences into a valued asset as you take on the difficult paths ahead.


About the Photographer: Aishvarya Vasishta is a medical student from India. Photography inspires him, and helps him look at the world with a brand new perspective. “This photo was taken in the evening, when the last rays of sun splash the sky with brilliant hues,” he said. “It gives the feeling that the journey ends, but also the hope that there will be a new beginning when the sun rises again.”