Folk and fairy tales of a pandemic
… and how to face our fears and grief
The year 2020 will go down in history books as a year that was dominated by the pandemic. As of now, there is no end in sight. One thing that becomes obvious is that societies around the world are deeply divided. Divided in those who fear the virus and those who fear the measures taken to counter it.
To me it is almost ironic that people don’t seem to see that it is fear that not only divides, but also unites them.
Often the lables put onto people who have critical views of government’s responses are hateful, such as “Cov-idiots” and or even worse “Corona deniers” (putting them in a basket with holocaust deniers). The responses are as appalling: “Corona’s Witnesses” or the even de-humanizing “Sheeple”. Mockery and de-humanization of others is one step on the escalation spiral. If we don’t learn to be mindful of our words today, we will not build up our capacity of being mindful of our actions.
I am not writing these lines to take either side, but to ask you to take a step back and become mindful of your own thoughts, speech and actions.
It is not the first time that fear has gripped the world and driven people towards unskillful actions. Folk- and fairy tales are not just “nice stories”, but they are the condensed wisdom of our ancestors passed down through generations. Therefore we should try to learn from them to be more aware of today.
The overarching element of the following stories is how to face fear and grief.
The day Death came to the city – unkown author
Since I didn’t find an English source or even find the original author, I can only re-tell the story in my own words:
Once upon a time a scholar came to a city. In the shade of the city wall he saw an old man resting. “Who are you?” the scholar asked. “I am Death and I have come to this city to take 100 lives.” the stranger responded. His heart filled with fear the scholar ran into the city to the crowded market and proclaimed: “I have seen Death and he will take 100 lives!”. The message spread like wildfire, panic ensued. People rushed to their homes, trampling everything in their way; others started looting and plundering. It took a few days until the panic finally settled and peace was restored within the city wall – 5000 lives were lost. When the scholar left the city, he found Death again in the shade of the city wall. The scholar, his fear had given way to anger, confronted Death: “You said, you would take 100 lives, but 5000 are dead! You are a liar and a monster!”. Death only smiled and replied calmly: “I came to take only 100 lives. The old and the frail, who have lived beautiful lives, but whose time had come. The other 4900 lives are on you and the panic that you spread.
How to become mindful of the existance of fear?
It is easy to get overwhelmed by fear like the scholar in this story. The point, however, is not that we should simply stop feeling fear. I think it was Nelson Mandela who said: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
That first step is that we have to understand that fear is a completly natural feeling. It is a matter of fact that fear will arise in our lives at some point. It is a feeling that is hardwired into us human beings. Without a portion of healthy portion fear, we would probably not have survived until today.
This, however, does not mean that our actions we should be governed by fear, because it is as easy to overreact when we get frightened, similar to the scholar in the story. Therefore the second step is that we have to recognize when the feeling of fear arises. This is probably the most difficult part, because of how hardwired fear is within us. There are plenty of mindfulness trainings out there that can help to catch the fear in it’s tracks. Most people (including myself and definately including the scholar in the story) are not mindful enough to recognize when fear arises. A good practice is to take some moments, for example in the evening, and look at your day and all the moments when you felt fear. Ask you self a couple of questions: What caused your fear? How did it arise? What was the broader situation and context? Was the fear helpful at that moment (maybe you did indeed see a poisonous snake?) or was it just unskillful panic? How did you react to that fear?
In time you might be able to not only look back, but recognize when fear arises. If you do so, you should try to rethink your reflexive reaction. The scholar was not mindful, he did not recognize his fear for what it was and he reacted in an unskillful and reflexive way. If he had just stoped for a second and stopped the certainly well-intentioned reflex of telling everyone in it’s tracks, he might have found a better course of action. Could he have stayed a little longer and inquired about Death’s true intentions? We won’t find out in this story, but maybe in the next story, “The fox and the lion” by the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop.
My own words remind me a bit of what I heared in a podcast I am listening to somewhat regularly. It is called the “Secular Buddhism” podcast. Even though I am not a Buddhist myself, I enjoy listening to the views expressed there. Looking back at the last paragraph I can tell that I was probably influenced by the last episode I listened to “142 – Wisdom and fear“. If you like the train of thought presented in my first story, you might enjoy the podcast as well.
The fox and the lion
WHEN A FOX who had never yet seen a Lion, fell in with him by chance for the first time in the forest, he was so frightened that he nearly died with fear. On meeting him for the second time, he was still much alarmed, but not to the same extent as at first. On seeing him the third time, he so increased in boldness that he went up to him and commenced a familiar conversation with him.
How to overcome our fear?
In this short fable, Aesop teaches us that we fear the unknown. The more we learn about the true nature of things, the less we need to fear them. Just as the fox overcame his fear of the lion and was able to start a conversation with him, upon gathering more scientific evicence, we can start leaving our fear behind and having an educated conversation about how to go forward with our responses to the pandemic. If the fox had never overcome his fear, he might have missed out on a powerful friend.
The Sick Lion
This does not, however, mean that we should to be careless. In other stories, such as The sick lion, Aesop recognized that a certain level of carefulness is still required:
A LION, unable from old age and infirmities to provide himself with food by force, resolved to do so by artifice. He returned to his den, and lying down there, pretended to be sick, taking care that his sickness should be publicly known. The beasts expressed their sorrow, and came one by one to his den, where the Lion devoured them. After many of the beasts had thus disappeared, the Fox discovered the trick and presenting himself to the Lion, stood on the outside of the cave, at a respectful distance, and asked him how he was. “I am very middling,” replied the Lion, “but why do you stand without? Pray enter within to talk with me.” “No, thank you,” said the Fox. “I notice that there are many prints of feet entering your cave, but I see no trace of any returning.”
The Ox and the Frog
AN OX drinking at a pool trod on a brood of young frogs and crushed one of them to death. The Mother coming up, and missing one of her sons, inquired of his brothers what had become of him. “He is dead, dear Mother; for just now a very huge beast with four great feet came to the pool and crushed him to death with his cloven heel.” The Frog, puffing herself out, inquired, “if the beast was as big as that in size.” “Cease, Mother, to puff yourself out,” said her son, “and do not be angry; for you would, I assure you, sooner burst than successfully imitate the hugeness of that monster.”
What this fable teaches us is that, as hard as it seems, sometimes you have to accept loss. The mother of the young frog also had to accept the loss of her son to an overwhelming force that she was not able to comprehend.
Kisa Gotami and the mustard seed
A Buddhist story
Kisa Gotami’s story is one of the most famous stories in Buddhism that is often told among Buddhist nuns. It is the story of Kisa Gotami – a mother. Even more, it is a story of everyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one.
Again I will retell her story in my words:
Kisa Gotami was mother of a young boy. One day the boy fell ill and died soon after. Kisa Gotami was swallowed by grief. She cried for hours, maybe even days. She clutched her sons body close to her chest, praying that he might wake up again. She asked villagers for help to bring her son back to life, but there was nothing to be done. Finally one of the villagers suggested to seek the advice of the Buddha.
Clinging to this last straw of hope, Kisa Gotami pleaded with the Buddha to bring her son back. She was desperate and would do anything for her son to return. The Buddha replied that he would be able to help her, Kisa Gotami only had to do one thing. She had to bring him a mustard seed from a house where noone has ever lost a family member.
The young mother rushed from house to house and everyone was willing to give her all the mustard seeds she could carry. However, not a single family was without their own story of loss and death. There was not a single house in the village whose residents had not faced the death of a loved one. Kisa Gotami understood that death is an inevitable part of life. She burried her son and became a follower of the Buddha.
Mors certa hora incerta – Death is certain, the hour is uncertain
As stated before, I am not a Buddhist, therefore I don’t want to look at Kisa Gotami’s story from a purely Buddhist perspective, there are better sources out there, like here or here, but simply point out what I think we should learn from this story:
Grief, similar to fear, is part of our lives. We are afterall human and can not simply choose “not to feel grief”. This is true for Kisa Gotami, in the same way it is true for anyone who has lost a loved one during the pandemic. We should realize that all of us have experienced loss in life. When we realize that not only we are grieving, but also the person opposite from us, we might find a little bit more compassion with one another.
When we are like Kisa Gotami in her grieving state, we cannont see clearly. We need to open our eyes to see and understand that it is the sum of all past experiences that formed our position in the debate.
Does someone not wear a mask? Maybe that person had a traumatizing event in their past that involved not being able to breath. Does someone not care for social distancing? Maybe, during lockdown, that person was seperated from a loved one who had to die alone
Or the opposite position: Does someone denounce others for not sticking to the rules? Maybe that person was unable to prevent the loss of a loved one who had caught the virus.
Let’s be mindful of our thoughts, speech and actions and respect each other.
Chasing away elephants – Paul Watzlawick
Correlation is not causation
Paul Watzlawick was an Austro-American philosopher, psychologist and communication theorist, who is best known for his axioms of communication and his most cited statement “You can not NOT communicate”. The following story is attributed to him.
A man is walking down the street, clapping his hands together every ten seconds. Asked by another man, why he is performing this peculiar behavior, he responds: “I’m clapping to scare away the elephants”. Visibly puzzled, the second man notes that there are no elephants there, where upon the clapping man replies: “See, it works!”
THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES – Hans Christian Andersen
In this story by Hans Christian Andersen, the Emporer falls for a scam made up by two weavers. Fooled by their pride, their fear of embarressment and peer preassure, the Emporer and his ministers fail to admit that the Emporer’s Clothes do – in fact – not exist.
So now the Emperor walked under his high canopy in the midst of the procession, through the streets of his capital; and all the people standing by, and those at the windows, cried out, “Oh! How beautiful are our Emperor’s new clothes! What a magnificent train there is to the mantle; and how gracefully the scarf hangs!” in short, no one would allow that he could not see these much-admired clothes; because, in doing so, he would have declared himself either a simpleton or unfit for his office. Certainly, none of the Emperor’s various suits, had ever made so great an impression, as these invisible ones.
“But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” said a little child.
“Listen to the voice of innocence!” exclaimed his father; and what the child had said was whispered from one to another.
“But he has nothing at all on!” at last cried out all the people. The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.
You can read the whole story here on fairytalenight.com.
Delusion as one of the three poisons in Buddhism
The three poisons in Buddhist teachings are greed, hatred and delusion (sometimes also translated as ignorance) from which arises all evil. While greed certainly is also at play in the story (in the form of the weavers) the poison that is mainly addressed here is delusion. People believe what they want to believe. They follow experts without looking at reality by themselves.
A more Buddhist way of describing delusion could be found at sunyatacentre.org: “Delusion is our wrong understanding or wrong views of reality. Delusion is our misperception of the way the world works; our inability to understand the nature of things exactly as they are, free of perceptual distortions.[…] To antidote and overcome delusion, we cultivate wisdom, insight, and right understanding. Learning to experience reality exactly as it is, without the distortions of our self-centered desires, fears, and expectations, we free ourselves from delusion.”
One of the first proponents who connected our reaction to the current pandemic to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale was German doctor Wolfgang Wodarg. Wodarg repeated this claim in various videos, but stated it most clearly in his interview for Corona film by Oval Media, which you can – so far – still find on YouTube. “Which means that now it’s going to be very hard for critics to say “Stop. There is nothing going on.” And this reminds me of this fairytale about the king without clothes on. And just a small child was able to say “Hey, he is naked!” […] “How was it before? Didn’t we have the same thing last year? Is it even something new? That’s missing. And the king is naked.”
In the comment section of Wodarg’s facebook page you can find the following interpretation his statements:
“The fairy tale: “The emperor’s new clothes” could be applied to our situation. The Emperor (government …) is persuaded that he would get something very special in clothing (Covid19) tailored. He and the citizens believe that they see the clothes and ignore what their eyes really see. They remain caught in their delusion, also because the discovery of the opposite (especially for the “Emperor”) would be embarrassing – and his desire to stand out (vanity) is great. Every hint of doubt that arises is immediately quenched. It is the same with Corona – “tailors” (project developers and experts) praise (propaganda) their work and flatter the “Emperor” and confirm the existence of the clothes. They describe them, yet everyone else does not see anything, which they attribute to the delicacy of the fabric. The tailors (experts) are being “believed” in what “must” be seen … an emperor would not walk around naked afterall – even if it actually looks like it. For fear of not seeing what everyone else seems to see, doubters prefer to remain silent on the parade – they don’t trust their own eyes. —- And only a “child” finally speaks openly at the parade what it sees, namely – that the emperor is not wearing anything – that there is nothing at all. You also know the end …”
There is a lot of wisdom in our folk- and fairy tales, as well as in many of the religious stories from all traditions. Therefore I suggest we take a moment read and learn from them. If you liked the stories presented here, you might also enjoy a view on tales about immortality.