Many years ago, when my daughter was a very young child, she witnessed a pet cat giving birth to kittens. Her first response was to say, ”ooh, it’s messy.” I recall saying to her at the time, “Life is messy, my dear.” Very shortly afterwards, she commented on how cute were the kittens. This is a scene I remember vividly, and subsequent events have only served to reinforce the image of life as messy.
We spoke last week of this “messiness,” the many contradictions and polarities in life, the blend of strength and weakness, loyalty and betrayal, caring and hostility: the inseparable blend of light and shadow in each of our lives. Yet coursing through this blend, undergirding and surrounding it, I believe, is the sacred worth of the person and indeed of all that is.
One striking example of this perspective is found, for me, in the story of Snow White, in its more original version. As many of you may know, a few decades ago, I was invited to share supper and stories with children in a residential treatment centre. What I noticed was that the children responded most fully to the common folk tales. As a result, I began to engage in a more thorough exploration of these stories which led to teaching a university course on them. I approached them, as I had other stories, from the lens of equality, mutuality, and interdependence.
In the story of Snow White, the colours play a significant role. As the story open, a queen is sewing while looking out the window. She pricks her finger and three drops of blood spill on the snow. She then wishes for a child as white as snow, as black as the ebony wood of the window frame and as red as blood. These colours together symbolize the passions, conflicts, polarities, and contradictions of life; as well as the challenge to integrate these elements in a life-giving way.
Together white and black express the totality of life, the full spectrum of colour and the absence of all light, the light and shadow that are part of any human life, as we have often said. Within the totality of our lives, with its messy contradictions, two powerful forces are a t work, symbolized by the colour red: the destructive red of hatred and the creative red of love.
The two queens illustrate two opposing attitudes and two contradictory ways of striving to culminate or crown one’s existence. The first queen sheds her own blood in sacrifice in order to give life to her daughter. The second queen tries to sacrifice the girl to her own vanity and jealousy. The basic life choice is between life-giving red of love and the death-dealing red of hatred.,
This story recalls that of the two wolves, the wolf of love and the wolf of hatred, that are engaged in a fierce struggle within ourselves. And the grandfather answers the child’s question as to which one wins by saying that it is the one that we feed.
As the story of Snow White unfolds, she experiences the whole forest of human emotions. These culminate in the tasting of all the powerful feelings, expressed in the red side of the apple. Like the caterpillar transforming into the butterfly, she undergoes a death and rebirth experience. All along her journey, she is assisted by others as well, portrayed by the hunter, the dwarfs, and the prince. It is essentially her choice of love over hatred that gives meaning and fulfillment to her life.
A wonderful symbol is that of the truth-telling mirror. Amid the myriad contradictions within ourselves and within life, the challenge is to find a true image or reflection of oneself, beyond a vain stress on externals. A mirror that tells the truth suggests that a person is mirrored to himself or herself by any situation or event, any conversation or word, in short, any experience that reveals to them and confronts them with the truth of who they are, and challenges them to grow into the person they might become. Our image of self, then, is distorted by vanity or superficiality, by self-hatred in any of its forms, and by the hostility of others with their isolating and killing reflection. Our true image is revealed not only in solitude, but especially by people who care. They see and respond to and call forth to our deeper self, beneath the more surface distortions, and they challenge us to discover and live by that true self.
What this and other such stories suggest to me is that life is indeed messy, that we are beset with conflicting feeling, ideas, and attitudes, both within ourselves and in the world of other persons and other beings and situations outside of ourselves. The can pull us in opposing directions, confuse us, and make it difficult to develop and maintain a sense of our sacred worth. Yet, with the help of intelligently caring others, we can struggle gradually along the path of openness, compassion, love, and justice. To do so is to enrich the meaning of our own life and to contribute to the positive unfolding of the lives of others which intersect with our own, and of the earthly home on which we live out our lives.
Amidst all that surrounds and affects your unfolding life, may you find mirrors of your own sacred worth and that of those who share your life in any way. And may you uncover a love for yourself that gradually embraces others in ever wider circles.
Norman King, May 17, 2021