Mind Matters — Aesop’s Fable and Beyond

When one of my children was in third grade, the class played out renditions of Aesop’s Fables on the little meeting house stage of West Chester Friends.

One story in particular has stayed with me for over twenty years. May be it was those cardboard waves being pulled to and fro by some unseen eight-year-old hands that keeps the image so alive. Standing on the “shore” by the “water,” a child lectures to the “struggling” boy caught between waves’ movements. The lecturer notes how the swimmer didn’t heed the warnings, should have known better, didn’t know how to swim in the first place, and so on. As a result, the boy drowns.

Beyond the image of these third graders, Aesop’s message carried, then and now, a most poignant lesson. Aesop, another young thespian reminds us, tells us that when a person is drowning (or in trouble in some way) save the lecture for later. Do the rescuing and the helping first.

Aesop noted this thousands of years ago, but we humans don’t do well remembering the wisdom already given us. Time and again, we lecture or criticize, when what is needed is support, aid, sometimes even an out and out rescue.

My Mother got Aesop. I remember her telling me about the time my brother, as a two-year old, climbed out an open window and onto the roof below, naked save for a superman cape and an intention to fly. She instinctively knew that that was not the time for a lecture, but a very persuasive coaching back to the window and into safety—the stern talking to come later.

Recently, I saw a documentary (Sergio, HBO Documentary, 2010 Chasing The Flame, LLC) about Sergio Vieira de Mello, who had been the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Iraq. When, in August, 2003, the Baghdad Canal Hotel was bombed by terrorists (who may well have been targeting Sergio himself), Sergio and a colleague became pinned in the rubble for many hours. Two U.S. military rescuers who worked diligently to free the two men recalled their efforts, even to the point of a re-enactment of events. Sergio did not survive; his companion did; but his legs were amputated at the site of entrapment. I note this story here as it relates to Aesop’s fable (not as it relates to the horrors of such primitive surgery in horrific circumstances).

All four men manifested bravery and persistence. However, the two rescuers exhibited, it seemed to me, the polarities of Aesop’s tale. One soldier commended Sergio’s selfless-ness (even to the point of sending a letter to the U.N. describing his experience with Sergio). This soldier perceived Sergio as compassionate and courageous, uncomplaining about his own state, yet constantly concerned about the well-being of his staff. The other soldier, meanwhile appeared still angry that Sergio never followed his lecture-directives to “pray to Jesus, God will save you.”

Despite the adage that there are no atheists in foxholes, Sergio would not succumb to this religious soldier’s admonitions. And so, the one soldier was bereft that Sergio could not be saved, and saw in this man a bright beacon of compassion, the other soldier remained caught in “he didn’t follow my directives, therefore, it was Sergio who failed.” To my mind, this latter rescuer didn’t get the Aesop memo.

So what does this have to do with anything in our world now? I look at the oil spewing into the Gulf and I think, while the government needs to thoroughly investigate the whys and wherefores of BP, Halliburton, and whatever corporations are involved, the most important focus now is how to resolve the problem at hand and not expend energy (hmmm!) on blame.

The alcoholic may need a treatment center, but don’t lecture him about that when he’s inebriated. Wait until morning for “The Talk.” The teenager may text home at 2 A.M.—well beyond curfew. No time for text message battles—the lecture can come after everybody gets some sleep.

Beyond Aesop’s fable, I would like to voice another observation about the oil disaster in the Gulf. My clients can be wonderfully wise. Often their concerns go well beyond their personal life to all life on earth. Recently, several women have expressed their worry about the oil gushing into the Gulf. One noted, “Mother Nature is not happy with us.” Another put forth the idea of having a world day of humble prayer for forgiveness to the earth for what we have done to her. These women may be onto something. For all the linear thinking (beyond even the blame game) about how to solve this tragic disaster, no one has considered that maybe the Halliburton’s and the BP’s (and we are all accountable to some extent) ought to lay prostrate on those tarred Gulf shores and shed tears for what they (and we as humans) have done in plundering the earth’s resources without ever so much as a “Thank you, we are humbly grateful for all your bounty.”

Trying not to lecture here when the need is for the solution, not the blame, I do wonder if some soulful humility (the word itself comes from the Latin word humus—meaning EARTH) might be in order in addition to some non-linear problem solving.

In The Heart of Being Hawaiian (Watermark Publishing, 2008), Sally-jo Bowman reminds us of “ho’oponopono.” This is the Hawaiian family tradition whereby people seek to solve problems, not by focusing on blame, but by “making right” relations that are not working. It would seem that our relationship, not only with each other, but also with the earth, has gone awry. Perhaps we all need to take heed how to “make right our relationship” with Mother Earth. Time for “ho’oponopono.”