Fables Help Us See Things More Whole

[This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in November, 2019]


I mentioned here (“The Thank You Note”) my choosing to reach out to my two five-year-old granddaughters (who live on the other side of the country) by sending them a series of videos, on each of which I tell them an Aesop fable.

It’s occurred to me since then how my choosing these fables connects with my lifelong belief in the importance of seeing not just the particular and concrete but also the patterns formed by the way things in our world are so densely interconnected. (And with my belief that in no era of America history have our cultural habits of thought engaged so little in “seeing things whole”—a deficiency for which we are now paying a great cost.)

Fables are picturesque and enjoyable vehicles for revealing patterns embedded in the human world.

The stories are vivid and concrete – about foxes trying to get some grapes, about a lion who learns that even the very humble can be of great value, about a couple that cuts open a goose to get all her eggs at once.

But what each story is about, ultimately, is some general pattern that explains situations having nothing to do with foxes or grapes, or killing geese.

The reason people still speak of “the little boy who cried wolf” – applying that image to situations that have nothing to do with sheep and wolves – is that it captures a pattern about what happens when someone raises a false alarm. And still more generally, about what happens to someone who deceives people and then later cannot get them to believe him when he speaks truthfully.

The fable of “The Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs” shows a general truth about the destructive nature of greed, and the folly of tearing down good arrangements in the world that are already providing plenty, out of an insatiable desire for riches.

It’s the way the various pieces assembled in the fable fit into a whole variety of situations that explains why Aesop’s fables have entered into the language we use to talk with each other about the reality we live in.

(We don’t need to be familiar with sheepherding to understand something vividly when we hear someone speak about a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”)

That the fable provides a means of “seeing things more whole” is shown by this striking piece of evidence: the fact that in many editions of Aesop’s fables – for the past couple centuries, at least – provide a “Moral” at the story’s conclusion. The “Moral” boils the fable down to make explicit the generality that’s part of the rich fabric of how things are connected.

(I’m mostly not a fan of adding such morals to the story. I think we should all have to do the assignment of discerning the pattern that captures some general truth about human affairs.)

Each fable – by sketching a picture that’s but a small piece of the still larger picture that shows all the connections among everything in our world – take us a bit further along that path of “seeing things whole.”

A fable, properly told, is like a little gem, so crafted as to illuminate an underlying structure embedded in our human reality. And for that reason, the tale should be told with no padding. Anything unnecessary would obscure that structure. The fable is best told with not an extra word or an extra sentence, only what is required to reveal the essential pieces of the pattern.

(The story of the little boy who cried wolf could have omitted the way the boy laughed at the townspeople whom he has greatly inconvenienced by raising an alarm just to see them come running. But that little piece is included because it shows something of the nature of the human being who treated his neighbors that way, and about the impact of his actions on how people regard him. But we don’t get anything about the color of the boy’s clothes, because it would just distract from seeing what’s connected with what.)

In this quality – in being cut with gem-like precision to show some slice of the wholeness of the human world — the fable has a lot in common with spiritual stories from the various religions of humankind. I think especially of the Sufi stories anthologized years ago by Idris Shah. But one could generate an anthology of stories from other traditions, like the Zen stories, the stories of Christianity’s “Desert Fathers,” Tales of the Hasidim. Each of these also attempts to convey something about the Whole – of a different kind of wholeness than the resolutely secular wholeness of those who live in this concrete world without reference to some sacred realm.

It’s all about seeing things whole. It’s about seeing “what comes with what” as part of the organic dynamics of the world of human life that we are engaged in every day.

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