Animal Stories are Us

Unsettling truths about the human realm can be more palatable when delivered in the form of a parable. In animal stories, such as told by Aesop, Walt Disney, and the Bible (“behold the birds of the air”), we can see our own reflection if we are willing to look.

But who thinks of himself as one of the unworthy pigs, living off the labors of Boxer, the hard-working horse, and ladling off the best for himself–while reading Orwell? Who even thinks of “Animal Farm” as about anything but Russian totalitarianism? But when the pigs persuade the other animals that they are the ones who know how to run the farm, and keep the farmer’s champagne for themselves, I wonder why I feel that this is also a story about ‘democratic’ America for our times?

I’d rather reread “Wind in the Willows” (Kenneth Grahame, 1908) than “Animal Farm”. I especially enjoyed the illustrated children’s version, which I read many times to my sons. It was just a good-hearted story about unconfident Mole, adventurous Rat, honorable Badger, and self-indulgent Toad–the owner of Toad Hall–who was constantly chasing after one superficial fantasy or another. There was only one possible outcome for Toad’s infatuations: his automobile inevitably crashed; he grew bored with traveling the country side in his horse-drawn recreational vehicle; and rowing on the river, in his Olympic-quality scull, proved harder than it looked in the brochure.

Toad is absent from Toad Hall so much, pursuing his fantasies, that the weasels and the stoats take it over and, once installed, they treat their usurped territory as if they have been given a mandate to exploit it. But when, eventually, the weasels and stoats are expelled and peace is restored, Toad seems calmer and more balanced—as if he recognizes that the other animals were willing to risk their lives in his defense.

I like to believe that there will always be Boxers and Badgers among us, pulling the heavy loads on which my own well-being depends. But the weasels and stoats seem to have grown so comfortable in the halls of power, I wonder how long the Badgers and Boxers among us will be able to keep saving the rest of us.

The dodo and the dinosaurs have moved on, but Aesop’s Ant and Grasshopper will never die, as long as there are doers and dreamers. And I’ve heard that Aesop’s Fox–who asserted that the grapes were sour anyway, when he couldn’t jump high enough to grab them—has recently completed an unsuccessful run for the presidency.

Aesop admired how Ant gathered and stored corn in autumn, before winter snows kept everyone indoors, while he leaves Grasshopper standing on the frozen ground, completely out of options. Ralph Waldo Emerson gives a similar nod to “Prudence”, in his essay of that name.

My own daily life has more Ant than Grasshopper at the helm, but I have a soft spot for the notion that our lives don’t have to be nailed down by duty and expectation. Indeed, I suspect that a door to freedom can swing ajar when we question the value of what we have been doing and dare to try something different.

Ralph Waldo Emmerson made the observation, in his essay, “Prudence”, that if you don’t repair your roof on a sunny day, you’ll be running around with pots and pans as soon as it rains. And then all your hopes and dreams will just have to wait.

Concerning the value of prudence and of industrious preparation for the future, Ant and Grasshopper are well-known to hold very different views.

One day, in late Autumn, Ant and Grasshopper were having tea at Badger’s house, when a migrating Canada Goose showed up. After listening for a while to Grasshopper’s remarks on the benefits of travel, the Canadian visitor cleared his long throat and announced that he had composed a Haiku on that very subject somewhere over North Dakota:

I think more and more
About how to get back home
Yet I’ve never left

Badger took his pipe out of his mouth and nodded thoughtfully, while Grasshopper started jumping from the couch to the lamp shade and back again in vigorous approval, all the while exclaiming, “Did you hear that, Ant? That’s exactly my point. There’s no need to keep building a new home. The world is already our home.”

Ant remarked dryly: “Calm down, Grasshopper. Unlike you, our foreign friend is preparing for the winter by migrating toward the equator. But what do you do? If Badger wasn’t sharing the supplies in his excellent root cellar and letting you sleep here, you’d already be lying on your back in some cold field, dead as a stone. I don’t wish to offend, but what a waste of potential your sorry life is.”

Grasshopper, undaunted, hopped up onto the kitchen table, made a few circles, then sat down on his haunches and proceeded to disclaim on his favorite subject.

“My dear Ant, while you carry body parts in one direction and grains of sand in the other, those of us who see further than the rear end directly in front of us are free to inhale the autumn air, celebrate the early morning mist, and bask in the glorious sunlight. Only an obsessive compulsive would keep digging tunnels in the dark, day after day, from morning to night.”

Ant, who was at Badger’s that afternoon to lay a pipe to carry water from the pump to the kitchen sink, was studying blueprints spread out in front of him and may not have heard Grasshopper’s speech. But Badger stood up from his rocking chair and cleared his throat.

“I propose a debate to be held here this Sunday afternoon. Grasshopper, you will defend the affirmative of the premise: ‘Home is where the heart roams.’ And Ant, you will take the negative side. Tear this proposition down; dismantle it; devour the leftover bits and pieces; demolish all empty rhetoric; and skewer the slightest hint of implausibility with your penetrating analysis.”

Ant started to plead prior obligations: “That sounds like great fun; however I’m afraid that Rat needs me to retrieve an engagement ring he dropped into a crack in his patio . . .”

Badger knew his way around Ant. “I will be breaking into my summer corn harvest—organic, non-GMO. Doggy bags allowed.”

Ant immediately dropped his disclaimers and Badger turned to the Canadian visitor, “Well my fine-feathered friend, you started this with your Haiku. I trust you will stay to see what you have wrought.”

But the visitor from Canada spread his impressive wings–knocking several mice off a nearby book shelf–and said,

While the Sun wings South
I must follow in His wake
Lest my days end here.

Badger nodded and said, “Until next Autumn then, my venerable friend.”

Then Badger lit his pipe, picked up the newspaper and buried himself behind it, until even Grasshopper got the hint and went to watch Ant struggling with a rusted pipe fitting. Presently, Grasshopper was giving Ant the benefit of his fund of practical wisdom.

“Remember, Ant. Righty tighty, lefty loosey.”

Ant kept his counsel as he continued to work, but he may have been silently preparing a few choice remarks for Sunday.

. . . . .

It seems that we need to protect ourselves from meaningless, deadening activities, especially when society pulls us away from our own visions of fulfillment.

But might societal momentums and expectations be so powerful that we feel unable to resist? If so, then what are we to do?

Should we disengage from activities that conflict with our private aspirations? Or should we advance into the heart of those external forces in order to understand them—as a necessary first step toward harmonizing our inner dreams with our outer circumstances?

Is it possible that our day dreams arrive from an intersection between inner being and life in the world?

Dreams don’t come from nowhere. Perhaps dreams and aspirations wash up on the shores of a vast unknown sea—in which no wall could ever be erected—and break in upon our familiar home land. These dreams may provide intimations that can help us feel at home in a wider, more open realm.

One thing is certain. We need another strategy than that of trying to fortify some imagined homeland, whose walls—even if not breached from outside—form a prison within which we have locked ourselves.

Just as a tree rooted on a hillside has formed–in the course of many seasons–from nutrients drawn from that hillside, so are we the result of a seed planted and nurtured in the field of our lives.

To feel that the world is our enemy, intrinsically inhospitable to our aspirations, is thus a form of self-rejection.

Perhaps we admire Ant for the wrong reasons. Perhaps Ant is not marching lock-step with some preprogrammed need to fill the larders of the colony. Perhaps Ant is actually exploring the field of his own being: constantly going forth and returning home, knitting together his experiences in the world with the building of an inner sanctuary.

Or perhaps Ant is a sailor; most at home when out at sea, who also feels a responsibility to return home with his catch of the day.

. . . . .

When Winnie the Pooh sallies forth on his adventure of the day, often centered on the quest for a pot of honey, his mind and heart are open to whatever may appear in his doorway. Without hesitation or forethought, he steps out into the world, a happy, untroubled friend to all. Not so for Eeyore. For Eeyore the future is a rainy day that will never relent.

Winnie the Pooh, like Don Quixote before him, is a knight of the flying moment, sallying forth into a world that never fails to give him a series of adventures. If Pooh has a hankering for honey, then a pot of honey will appear. Meanwhile in the shadows of Pooh’s world, perhaps the other face of unrelenting optimism, there lives a darker alter ego, the nay-saying, pessimistic, world-weary Eeyore.

Pooh and Eeyore both pass their days in a community in which everyone is splendidly dotty. It’s a utopia of the leisure classes, where time stretches out uncurtailed by any responsibilities, where famine and war are unknown, and where there is unlimited opportunity to design your life afresh every morning.

Children’s stories, while lacking in the inconvenient tasks that govern most people’s lives, often touch upon an important level of truth. In their simplified worlds, we can see human characteristics clearly, and—at least for the time we are under the spell of these simple stories—we get to choose who we would like to be when we grow up. I think most of us would choose Winnie the Pooh over Eeyore, at least while we are visiting their fictional world. But whom do we choose in our own lives? Are we Pooh, leisurely planning what we’ll do today over a second cup of tea and honey? Or are we more like Eeyore, peering out at the day to come, assuming the worst, projecting onto the future an aura of threat and malevolence, in a world awash with omens of disaster. Are we laying low in the swamps of depression, lest we be noticed and singled out?

There’s another set of children’s stories in which two characters, Frog and Toad, are inseparable pals. Like Pooh and Eeyore, they are very different from one another. Frog is comfortable in the world, and like Winnie the Pooh, has a natural proclivity to enjoy life, to cheerfully laugh at his own foibles, and to say Hello to strangers. Toad, like Eeyore, is nervous about the world, as if he feels chronically unprepared for the unpleasant surprises that are bound to come.

There is one episode where Toad is walking along a windy hilltop and his To Do List for the day is swept out of his hands. For Toad, the inveterate list maker, this is an unmitigated disaster. He remains rooted to the spot until Frog finds him and persuades him to take a few steps without the guidance of his list.

After a few steps, they find a sheet of paper stuck to a branch further along the path and Toad’s reminders to “Take a walk,” and “Visit Frog” have already been accomplished merely by taking that unpremeditated step off the windy hilltop.

Not that long ago, when I returned from work and looked in my satchel for the three planning books in which I record my monthly, weekly, and daily agendas, Toad looked like a mere amateur in the art of preparing to meet an unreliable world. I didn’t stand there frozen like Toad, unable to take a step until 1 knew what step I had proscribed next on my lists. Instead I jumped into my car and drove five miles to retrieve my planning books from my office and only felt comfortable once I had them in my hands. Now I could face the weekend with my list to tell me who I wanted to be.

Where was the wisdom of Frog when I needed it?

We all need friends, and if we are lucky, our friends will include teachers, guides, and allies on whom we can count when we fall off the wagon conveying our better self. Drinking companions who have no interest in us when we are sober, opinionated buddies who have no tolerance for anyone who doesn’t agree with them, including us if we dare to question their prejudices: these are not the friends we need.

Winnie the Pooh can call upon Christopher Robin for those times when having stuffing for brains doesn’t quite measure up. At such times, Pooh has the self-knowledge needed to ask for help. And he is fortunate enough to live in a world where such help is available. Eeyore doesn’t live in that world. Not because the opportunity for trustworthy support doesn’t exist around him but because he cannot see through the mists of pessimism that he himself exudes.

There is a trilogy written by a 14th century Tibetan Buddhist sage, Longchenpa, entitled, “Kindly Bent to Ease Us.” And perhaps Pooh lives in a world that ‘kindly bends’ to help him when he is confused, distressed, or his own capacities are insufficient for the challenges with which his life confronts him. How wonderful it is to inhabit a world that responds to us in this way.

Pooh’s sunny orange color announces a being on whom the sun shines, whereas Eeyore’s rainy day grayness bespeaks a life lived in the shadows. Which came first? Are we able to walk in the sunlight when we turn a trusting face towards it; but stuck in an untrustworthy reality when we hold back from life’s wholeness? Or do the conditions of our birth and early environment, simply and irrevocably, impose their yoke upon us, forcing us to work through the Karmic legacy with which we begun?

Longchenpa gives a list of the conditions needed for us to raise our eyes to the light of understanding and the kindness of the realm in which we live. He doesn’t mention Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore, nor Frog and Toad, in particular, but I believe these storybook characters can help to reveal an opportunity we enjoy. Longchenpa describes the lucky circumstances required in order for humanity to thrive and for individual human beings to step into the inheritance that is our birthright. The circumstances he enumerates are worth noticing and appreciating, just as kind parents are worth appreciating, in a world where many children are not so lucky.

Some of the ingredients in the fortunate life that Longchenpa describes are the state of the world (including the particular circumstances of our social environment), and some are the qualities of our individual body and mind. The global, the local, and the personal combine to establish how fortunate or unfortunate we are. Longchenpa, a much-revered Buddhist master, wrote “Kindly Bent to Ease Us”, a beautiful, poetic, and profound work. His list of fortunate attributes occupies only a few pages at the start of this three-volume work but it invites the reader to begin a journey of inquiry from the starting point of appreciation for the life we have been given.

Two items on his list are: We have been born a human being with a mind able to understand and explore; and we have been born at a time in the world when profound teachings (worth understanding and exploring) have not all been lost or destroyed.

Whatever our spiritual roots, we can feel gratitude for the fact that these spiritual teachings are accessible on the planet right now, that people are available to share these teachings with us, and that we have been born with minds able to be inspired by the wisdom they contain.

There are so many ways that this fortunate state of affairs can be destroyed, either for us as individuals or for all of life on the planet. For some people alive right now, the chance to develop their potential as a full human being appears to have already gone under for the third time.

This human potential may require us to be interested in the edges of our experience. It certainly involves qualities of mind beyond the cleverness exhibited by people who manipulate situations for what they imagine is their private benefit. Such people may be at risk of missing a precious opportunity to experience a kind of success in which benefits are shared.

Human kind’s dominion over our fellow creatures is typically connected with two gifts unique to humanity: our prehensile thumbs, with which we till the soil and cast seeds upon it, and our clever minds that are able to design the plows and scythes needed to harvest Mother Earth’s bounty.

It is not only our thumbs that are “prehensile” (which means “adapted for grasping”). Our minds are also prehensile; incessantly grasping after whatever attracts our attention. In Buddhism, grasping (along with aversion and ignorance) is presented as one of “three poisons”. According to that perspective, we respond to our experience in three ways: we try to avoid what is unpleasant (aversion), we try to get what attracts us (grasping), and we remain disinterested (ignorance) in everything else. To call such common characteristics of our daily experience “the three poisons” may seem a bit extreme. In describing our proclivities, we favor words like “love” and “value” when it comes to the objects of our affection; words like “danger” and “self-preservation” when it comes to our aversion to certain elements of our experience; and “minding our own business” when it comes to the vast field of potential interests in the face of which we remain ignorant.

However this picture of our lives as a frantic grasping after some things, a fleeing away from others, and a dull indifference to everything else, may strike some of us as uncomfortably close to the mark for how a typical day unfolds. The critical remark of our spouse or our boss may keep us off-balance for hours afterwards. The shapely legs of a young woman running for her bus may haunt us and launch us into internal fantasies that cause the world through which we are moving to virtually disappear. And the words of the friend or teacher, who is giving us advice that could indeed help us be happier, bounce off our dull indifference like rain bouncing off an awning above a parched potted plant underneath. Enveloped by such reflexive gestures, which grasp, push away, or ignore whatever may be pulling up alongside us, unhappiness is inevitable. These three gestures may seem dramatically different from one another, but they all have a similar result: they isolate us from the potential richness of experience. They erect barriers between ourselves and the environment through which we are travelling; thereby obscuring a world which we might otherwise find vivid and fulfilling. Just as our relationships with others tend to go better when we listen to what they say and are genuinely interested in what they are doing, so with all our experience: everything is more nourishing when we aren’t winnowing our encounters into friends, enemies and strangers.

When we turn towards whatever arises with interest, we may discover that inside this simple interest resides the seeds of wonder, and that we ourselves then become the ferti1e ground upon which those seeds have fallen.

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