I mentioned before that I have been teaching a five-week class on folk tales. This past week we looked at the story of The Old Man and His Grandson. Since I have used this story at the beginning of many classes, a number of you are certainly familiar with it. I have used it as a way into, an angle of vision for, our may life experiences. I would like to recall it here and spell out, in its light, a model of considering our experiences. This is a little-known story from the Grimm Brothers collection. It is very poignant and strikes home to many people. This is how it goes:
There was once a very old man, whose eyes had become dim, his ears dull of hearing, his knees trembled, and when he sat at table he could hardly hold the spoon, and spilt the broth upon the table cloth or let it run out of his mouth. His son and his son’s wife were disgusted at this, so the old grandfather at last had to sit in the corner behind the stove, and they gave him his food to eat in an earthenware bowl, and not even enough of it. And he used to look toward the table with his eyes full of tears. Once, too, his trembling hands could not hold the bowl, and it fell to the ground and broke. The young wife scolded him, but he said nothing and only sighed. Then they bought him a wooden bowl for a few pennies, out of which he had to eat.They were once sitting thus when the little grandson of four years old began to gather some bits of wood upon the ground. “What are you doing there?” Asked the father. “I am making a little trough,” answered the child, “for father and mother to eat out of when I am big.”The man and his wife looked at each other for a while, and presently began to cry. Then they took the old grandfather to the table, and henceforth always let him eat with them, and likewise said nothing if he did spill a little of anything.
There can be a number of reasons why this story may resonate with our own experience. Perhaps most basic are the feelings that the story portrays or evokes; feelings which all of us experience at various times and in various ways. These are feeling of rejection and acceptance, sadness and joy, insensitivity and compassion, loneliness and closeness, despair and hope.
Besides dealing with deep human feelings, the story also involves a good cross-section of life and experience. It covers three generations: elderly, young-to-middle adult, and child. It deals too with a family situation and with the relationships or bonds between people who live together. It focuses around basic human needs, physical and emotional, the need for food and for belonging, and the sorrow felt went these are taken away.
Among other things, the story shows that the child’s action hits home to the couple. They begin to see how insensitive they have been and how this attitude has hurt the grandfather. Then they start to see and treat him differently. They now regard him as a person to be cherished, rather than just as a nuisance to be tolerated. They come to a new way of seeing things, and so, to a new and more compassionate way of acting and living.
Perhaps every experience follows this kind of pattern or structure. In the story, the child’s action gives a new awareness to the parents, and it calls them to act accordingly. Possibly in every human experience, especially noticeable in the deeper ones, something is given to us and something is demanded of us. In this perspective, every human experience is to some extent both a GIFT and a CALL.
Do the gift and call themselves have a pattern? If the couple in the story continued to regard the grandfather as a nuisance. they would further hurt and sadden him, perhaps even kill his spirit. In treating him kindly, they would gladden his heart, and bring new life to his last days.
In this light, our experience gives us a choice in either of two main directions. Either WE BRING SOMETHING TO LIFE in ourselves and others or we put something to death in ourselves and others. And this can refer to all the forms and dimensions of life–physical, emotional, mental, artistic, economic, political, international, etc. The basic gift and task concerns life and death: bringing to life or putting to death. So, our life story is the story of many gifts and tasks or calls that are woven into our lives, and it is the story of the ways in which we respond to the gift and call, whether in a life-giving or a death-dealing way.
Even further, there is the possibility of responding to situations in which something has been killed or wounded in a person in any way. We may be able to help or be helped to heal the wounds, to restore or move beyond the sorrows and losses that have weighed us down. In that instance, we can speak of bringing to life even out of the kind of deaths, the difficult and even shattering experiences encounter in the midst of life.
So, one way of interpreting experiences is to see them as a gift and call to bring something to life rather than put something to death, and to bring something to life, even out of the many deaths in the midst of life.
May all the events and relationships of your life, at least over time, and with the help of intelligently caring others, become life-giving to yourself and to those whose lives intersect with your own.
Norman King, May 09, 2022.