It’s been fashionable for several decades now (and goodness, do I feel old remembering how long I’ve been engaging with the trend…) for us all to rewrite ‘classic’ stories, fairytales, folktales, well-known stories which are now helpfully just out of copyright limitations…
The list goes on.
And exploring these stories from different perspectives is always worth doing, but I can’t help thinking that we often miss the point of these old stories, just a little. The older stories are, the more the characters themselves don’t matter, so much as the theme and message of the plot. So maybe ‘The Prince’ doesn’t have much personality, maybe ‘The Evil Wizard’ doesn’t have a monologue exploring his in-depth motivations. But that wasn’t ever the point, was it? The point was what the story itself was trying to say. What we took away from it all, and kept with us for years and remembered in the backs of our minds, quietly shaping the people we would grow to become…
We talk a lot about ‘modernizing’ old stories, without ever stopping to think about how any story which has survived – which has made its way down throughout centuries and centuries, travelling miles and across kingdoms and continents – that story has resonated through so much time and space for a reason.
Because we will never, really, as people change very much. We still need warmth, and food, and shelter. We make friendships and fall in love – and out of it again – and argue and upset people and seek forgiveness, and demand justice. We deal with kind strangers still, when we are lucky, and have awful people try to take advantage of our weaknesses when they can. We put our trust in each other, and lend each other a hand, and try to defend each other when they need help.
The invention of cars and wireless technology and stainless steel and sliced bread didn’t change who we all were as people, not in our essentials. Oh, we may have shed light into the shadows and shown that the monsters we believed lived out in the swamps and marshes are less easy to find than we might have thought, but we never had to look all that far to find cruel monsters wearing our own faces, did we? And we forget this at our peril.
The lessons our foremothers thought were important enough to teach us, wise as they were to teach those lessons in a form which would stick with us longer than books hold their ink, or stones hold their scratches, or film holds its celluloid memories… Those lessons are still important to us all. And if we think we are too good for them, too modern, too clever, too far removed from the lives we had lived for centuries… well, it only ever seems to become more clear why those lessons had to be taught, as we learn them all over again, the hard way.
We didn’t stop living in communities, we just stopped caring for them. We didn’t defeat the tyrants, we just assumed they’d learned their lessons. We didn’t defeat hunger, and sickness, and loneliness, and grief, we just stopped talking about them and helping each other through them.
And are we any happier for that?
So much as we remembered that bread is easy to make in theory, but takes practice to make well; as we remembered that our loved ones might be loud, but we miss them when they fall silent; as we remembered that we actually really do like to sing and dance (even if we aren’t very good at it), that stories make the long days and nights go a heck of a lot faster, that making things with our own hands can be relaxing and helpful to us, as well as fun…
Let us go through some of the common themes and lessons from the stories we were once told, handed down to us from our ancestors, which not even pain and death and distance could take from us, and which are still patiently waiting for us to remember once more…
Don’t be rude to people as your default.
We’ve all seen it, even if we’re sure that we’ve never done it ourselves, never opened our mouths and said something cruel to some stranger we were never going to see again. It doesn’t matter. It’s not a reflection of who we really are, is it? It doesn’t mean anything.
Maybe it’s a bad day. Maybe you didn’t mean it how it came out. Maybe you say that to someone else all the time and they don’t make a stink about it.
And so it’s easy to sympathize with the character who opens their mouth and ends up on the wrong end of a curse, or has an endless quest ahead of them, or some impossible task which they must now defeat. After all, it’s not like they did anything wrong is it?
But let’s be honest here, in this scenario, in this moment, you made the decision to be rude to that stranger because you thought you could do so and get away with it. If you’d known there would be consequences afterwards, well… then you wouldn’t have done it, would you? But there’s the thing about consequences, isn’t it? Maybe try to make a little kindness be your default and see if that works out better for you next time.
Don’t put yourself forward for skills you don’t have, and don’t let other people do that for you either. Sooner or later, you’re gonna be taken seriously, and then how are you going to do it?
Remember the stories which begin with someone telling a few tall tales? ‘My daughter can spin wheat into gold.’ ‘I can run faster than even the wind.’
There’s a lot of career advice out there about making up a skillset for a job. Stretching the truth a little. No one has to know, do they? It’s easy to think that you’ll get away with these things in an age of Google, sure, but there are still expectations to manage, so don’t just think you can bluff your way through everything, or attempt the impossible without it falling through on you. No, you can’t take this project from first draft to ‘ready to publish’ in a few hours, no matter how much coffee you drink. No, you can’t make nine elaborate theatre costumes in one weekend all by yourself, especially without all the measurements. You are human, and you are allowed to acknowledge that, and if The Plan rests entirely on you suddenly being Superhuman, then it was a bad plan all along.
And you will be the one to pay the price, if you allow someone to think otherwise. There’s no shame in not being able to perform the Labours of Hercules, and you will not achieve god-hood if you try. You just end up tired and frustrated and outfaced by the scale of the problem before you.
The Selfish Die, Cold and Alone. And No One Mourned Them.
I know we like to say that the victory write history, and that’s often true. But people have longer memories than they are sometimes given credit for and they will remember. The dead do not bury themselves, after all, and the people who only know how to take will find themselves short on options when their own hour of need comes knocking.
You cannot eat gold, nor burn it, and no matter how heavily gilded your palace, it will be awfully echoing and empty without friends to share it with. You can buy sycophants, but you will tire of their empty smiles soon enough, and no matter how you plead that is all you will get from them.
‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Don’t You Dare Wish For Better.’ It Means ‘Everything Has A Cost, Choose Your Wishes Wisely’
There’s been a bit of a vogue to misinterpret this one, but I think we’re in the ideal time to recognize what our forebears had already learned the hard way. Everything comes with a cost, and if you don’t know about it up-front then you sure will have to grapple with it after the fact.
Maybe you wished for the huge, varied wardrobes of clothes you saw on tv and instagram, but now you know about the environmental and human cost of fast fashion and you have a bad taste in your mouth. Maybe you wanted a dog or cat for cuddles, but it turns out that living beings which you are responsible for take a lot of time and energy and care and cash, and a cat can live for fifteen years or more. Maybe you wanted that promotion, but you’ve just realized that you were working so many Saturdays and evenings that you’ve not seen your friends in nine months and some of them have stopped calling. Maybe you really like those restaurants that your SO can’t eat in, but you didn’t want to research alternatives and now you just don’t seem to go out together so much.
Making a decision isn’t about having no cons to weigh against the pros, but rather about thinking carefully about whether the pros outweigh the cons after all, and by how much. And you can’t avoid the cons by not reading the small print or doing a bit of research; they always find their way to you, sooner or later. There are no vacuums outside of labs, you are not an island, and sometimes getting what you want means thinking about how it affects other people before you do it.
And who knows? There might be a better way forward if you only look for it.
You are never going to beat Death forever, and trying makes you miserable.
One thing that we keep coming back to as a society time and time again is that it is the quality not the quantity of our years that matters most. Laughter might not be easy to find, but it’s one of the last things on Earth that’s free, so help yourself and share it around. Ditto hugs, when we can and when they are welcomed. You’re not immortal, and neither is anyone else, so don’t put off loving them until later, ok?
No one is too big, too powerful, too rich, too scary that they cannot be brought down in the end.
Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next year.
But one day.
If you fear that, then you know which role you are playing in this tale, and maybe it’s time to rethink a few things.
The ‘lone hero’ who succeeded actually had a whole team behind him. The elder brother who went off on his own didn’t make it.
I know the standard Hollywood film script likes to focus on one person for a story, and framing is important, but remember how the younger brother takes the time to talk to the people around him? To ask them questions, to listen when they give him advice, to rely upon the kindness of others, and repay them that kindness back in full or fuller in his own turn? And he succeeded in his quest, won the day, and rode home victorious with a bonus prize of cool new friends he gets to proudly introduce to everyone.
Well, the older brother didn’t, did he? He just strode off, confident in his own strength, his own wisdom and his own weapons. And sometimes his little brother rescues him, but others he does not.
One man cannot slay the dragon; he needs the blacksmith who lent him a sword after he fixed the roof; he needs the sleeping herbs offered by the old lady he helped gather firewood for; he needs the words of wisdom from the little boy he pulled out of the mud, handed along from his grandfather. Nothing is accomplished by one man alone. Acknowledge the community effort for what it is. Nothing is achieved except when it is attempted together.
If the task is impossible, you’ve not got enough hands to help you.
Can you sort through the lentils and rice grains all alone? No you cannot. You need your army of ant-friends. Can you fill up the storeroom with nuts in an hour? No, you need your squirrel-helpers. Can you stuff a thousand pillows with feathers in a night? Nope, it’s the mice’s time to shine and come to the rescue, isn’t it?
We’re a communal species, no matter what some twit with a neck-beard might say. We survive by working together. We instinctively seek each other out. We are miserable when we’re alone. Ask for help honestly, and be willing to give it in return. No one remembers when the job which was attempted alone failed, they celebrate when it was successfully completed by a team. Just remember to have plenty of tea and cake on hand while you work!
Lying is a risky way to get what you want. Some people might be fooled, but others will not.
“Tell me which of these is your lost axe? The one of gold, the one of silver, or the one of iron.” Hmmm…
Sometimes people are asking you a question they already know the answer to, and are letting you dig that grave for yourself. Oh, bluffing and cleverness are valuable skills, and they are important skills to learn, but use them carefully. If you’re asked a straight question, a straight answer is a lot easier to remember and live with, and being caught out in a lie is never going to go well.
Do what you can, even if it doesn’t seem like much.
In a world filled with news articles full of people sitting on mountains of resources handing out scraps, it’s easy to think that there is nothing you – who has so much less already – can do, nothing that really matters anyway. But sometimes the small gestures matter most.
Sometimes your simple kindness can make the big difference someone needed. Maybe bringing the lady at work you know is just really struggling right now a drink and a biscuit isn’t going to solve her problems, but she’ll be delighted to know someone noticed. Maybe you can’t help with someone’s over-filled desk, but telling them that they’re doing an awesome job even if no one else acknowledges it will give them a boost. Maybe telling that jerk on the bus harassing that man where precisely he can get off isn’t going to help his victim with all the times he’s going to have to deal with it this week. But he’ll know that at least one time he wasn’t alone and someone was prepared to stand up with him.
Have faith that you are vital and worthwhile, and that your genuine kindness and willingness to listen and reach out will be important to the person who needed it. Don’t hold back. Share what you can and remember that we all need that shoulder to lean on, and your shoulders are just as good as anyone else’s.
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