A resonant moment in the “Water of Life” (Grimms’ version) happens early on when the youngest brother differs sharply from the older two especially when he gets down off his horse showing respect to the small voice. Although it’s more subtle, we were given advance notice with their contrasting hearts: his is filled with tender love for the father and theirs are dark in self-centered greed. The story happily rewards the good-hearted with the prize but only after he suffers and grows a heart strong enough to deal with the dark side. Humans are not meant to remain in the Garden but like Eve are destined to know of good and evil.
From that third son we’re offered some sense of the heart’s journey, but the Arabian Nights’ version of this tale gives an enriched account. The character who embodies the heart-journey continues to be figured as the third child but shifts to the feminine. Early in the story, it’s the third sister who playfully makes the big-hearted wish to marry the ruler. Such a lofty wish does come true, but her naiveté (along with that of her husband) prompts harsh consequences extending even into her own daughter who has to live the rough trek out into the knowledge of dark voices, growing strong enough to foresee the necessity of developing a protective strategy.
When we seek to further amplify this theme of the good heart that develops into a strong heart, we’re fortunate to happen into a tale from Sierra Leone, Africa. The figure of the good but still innocent heart comes in “the daughter of the village” who is much loved by the ruler. The daughter gets separated from the village and is believed to have been taken by the ruler-above. In order to bring her back, the village has to absorb four or five (depending on the version of the story) unfamiliar and even unwanted characters. The nature of these characters includes:
- appearing to be lazy—while actually creating webs that are artistic but almost invisible connections, and by doing this work without being seen and thus without getting any credit,
- appearing to steal material objects—while redistributing wealth and thus incurring the wrath of the rich,
- appearing to inflict harm—while digging into the groundwork and too-familiar pathways,
- appearing to be unreliable, confusing, and inconsistent—while providing safe proximity to power, and
- appearing to inflict pain—while providing warnings of toxic materials and disclosures of high value.
Messages from these stories related to our real-world village here in 2017 seem almost too painfully clear. Where is the water of life that carries cleansing and renewal for our land, for all people of the world, including the rich folks who desperately, even if unknowingly, need renewal, inner and outer? Is the water/daughter still waiting, still captive, because we have not yet developed strong-enough hearts and generous-enough vision? We must see into the secret spaces, share resources, open to hard truths, and expand into Emerson’s darkened knowledge that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” And we must grow strong enough to endure the pain of dealing with poison within and without. Love that survives is not just altruistic; it also demands the discernment of giving with care so that resources are not turned to evil.
Martin Buber points our way to our divine resources and to the necessity of facing the old stories anew. It’s like admitting the stranger.
“…face the Book with a new attitude as something new…its sayings and images will overpower…mold…ferment…enter in…to incorporate itself anew…To endure revelation is to endure this moment full of possible decisions, to respond to and to be responsible for every moment” (On the Bible, pp. 5-7).
For our world village to adapt and survive, we need to work and play as if the spiritual text is unfamiliar, not frozen but alive, so that we can receive the needed revelation. One friend from across the ocean who is in our Good Stories class brought in a perfect passage from Pushkin to help us open to the revelations from Books and tales: