Leaving Things Behind
The following was a reflection originally written in November 2016 to my e-mail list subscribers.
It is relevant, today being "Black Friday," which apparently begins on Thanksgiving now. Just as relevant with the holidays coming, when people buy people a lot of stuff.
While my little boys played quietly, listening intently, I did my best to hide my reactions of shock, sympathy, and wonderment as to the horrible decisions the main character of a fairy tale made over and over again. I caught myself judging him harshly.
Stories of mistakes and mishaps have always frustrated me, and I've often stopped reading or watching these stories because I'd get so upset and the sheer thoughtlessness and lack of awareness of the main character. But when I stopped for a long pause wondering if I should continue, the children would ask that I proceed. The Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, wrote the story. They are known for writing the popularized fairy tales like "Cinderella," originally known as "Ashputtel," and "Snow White," originally written as "Snow-Drop." "Hans in Luck," was as new to me as to the children. The story is about Hans, a servant, who works seven long years when he ends his servitude to go home to his mother in another village. His master pays him his wages: a piece of silver "as big as his head," which weighs him down as he travels by foot. In his voyage, he meets five men and makes trades, each time happy with his trade but then dissatisfied and happier with the next trade. First, feeling the weight of the silver piece, he sees a man on horseback and imagines how easy it must be to travel by horse. Thinking the horse is better than the silver, he trades the silver for the horse. He's happy with this successful trade! But he gets thrown off the horse and into the mud, and the horse would have run off but a shepherd comes by and stops the horse. Hans looks at the shepherd's cow and thinks how much better the cow would be than the horse, since he could get milk and cheese from the cow. He trades the horse for the cow, and he's happy with this successful trade! But when it comes time to milk the cow, "not a drop was to be had." The cow kicks Hans in the head and knocks him out until a butcher comes by and wakes him. The butcher points out the age of the cow, saying it would only be good for cow-beef, which Hans detests. Hans realizes that the butcher's pig would be better than the cow, so he trades the cow for the pig. Again, he's happy with this successful trade! He continues on and meets a countryman who tells him that a pig has been stolen in the next village, and if he gets caught with the pig he'll be in a heap of trouble. Hans is thankful for this warning and realizes the man's goose would be better than the pig. He's happy with this successful trade! At the last village, he meets a scissor-grinder who asks Hans where he got the goose. He explains, he traded the goose for a pig, a pig for cow, a cow for a horse, a horse for his silver piece. The grinder happens to have an extra grindstone, and he tells Hans that "a good grinder never puts his hand in his pocket without finding money in it." Surely, that is a better scenario than the goose. Hans trades the goose for the grindstone, excited and happy with this successful trade! "I must have been born in a lucky hour, every thing that I want or wish for comes to me of itself," he says to himself. After a long day of travel and feeling tired from carrying the heavy stone, he stops to get water from a water bank and accidentally pushes the stone into the water. He watches it sink. And then, he "sprang up for joy, and again fell upon his knees and thanked heaven with tears in his eyes for its kindness in taking away his only plague, the ugly heavy stone. 'How happy am I...no mortal was ever so luck as I am.' he cries. And the story ends with Hans, "with a light and merry heart" who sets off to his mother's house "free from all his troubles." How does this story make you feel? Take a moment to think about it. In my case, just reviewing this story makes me feel unsettled! But it's not the story that's unsettling, it's my interpretation of it. You see, I first felt sorry for Hans, who seemed naive and swayed by what he thought was the next best thing, over and over. Like the story of our lives, with the better IPhone, the better house, the better car, the better job. I identified with Hans. I've made my own mistakes. I've trampled my own possible fortunes and thought the next thing was better. Each time he makes, in my view, a poor decision, trading an item with something of less value. But he sees every decision as making a better choice. Is he stupid? Or optimistic? Is he naive? Or confused? Is he getting taken advantage of? Or does he see the value in everything that he doesn't have, takes for granted what he does have, and is happy to make a trade because he thinks the grass is greener on the other side? Until he's dissatisfied again? Finally, he comes upon the grindstone, and I think: Yes, this is his redemption! Now he'll make a great living for himself, and will live a life of abundance! That's the life I want for him; that's the life I want for myself! And what does he do? He celebrates after accidentally pushing it into the water bank? What an idiot!!!! What a failure!!! Seven years of hard work for absolutely nothing? To walk away with nothing to show for his "faithful" servitude? And then I had to stop myself. I had to stop myself more than once. I stopped to realize that I was so harshly judging this simple and happy person who feels burdened by having these material things, a person who truly and honestly appreciates not having to hold on to these burdens once they are gone. He whined for a second when his investments didn't pan out, each time thinking another investment would be better and then taking action. Each time, his investment disappoints him, whether wildly flung off, kicked off, or potentially getting thrown in jail for one. And when he ends up with absolutely nothing, no material gain for his hard work, he feels "light" and "free." Light and free. Not angry. Not disappointed. Not cheated. Not like an idiot. Not like a fool. Not sad or depressed or unworthy. He feels light and free when he stops getting disappointed with the thing he owns. He feels light and free when the things stop controlling his life, when they no longer weigh him down in his journey. The feeling of wanting makes us less grateful for what we have. The feeling of lacking frustrates us and makes us want more. But the feeling of contentment means our happiness has nothing to do with the things we have. The feeling of not being weighed down by material things makes for a journey worth telling. You are on a journey. Tread lightly, my friends. With love, Sandy
Photo Credit: Alex Guillaume found on Unsplash.com