Understanding Others Stories

Mountian Goats

One of the famous characteristics of goats is their irritability. I don’t know if it’s true of all goats, but it’s certainly true of mountain goats in the Rockies. These goats are so prickly that if they stay in close proximity they not only hurt each other, but have even been known to kill their neighbour.

As puzzling as this behaviour may seem to us, there is a good reason for it. Mountain goats live in areas where there is a very limited food supply. If they were to live in groups they’d all end up dying as none would get enough to eat.

It can be the same with people. Often their behaviour is puzzling to us, sometimes downright offensive. They can be cold, prickly, irritable and harsh. Yet if we take the time to look we’ll find that there are usually reasons why people are like this – perhaps they’ve been hurt themselves, perhaps they’re dealing with great stresses. But whatever the reason there is a reason for their prickliness. Unlike goats however, it’s not healthy for us humans to live apart, and perhaps we need to explore our own prickliness and reach out lovingly to those who are so prickly.

Source: Scientific information adapted from When Elephants Weep

The Trapper’s Dog

There was once a widowed trapper who lived deep in the Alaskan wilderness with his 2 year old son. On one occasion their food supplies had run out and the trapper was forced to go and catch some more food. The weather outside was so fierce he reluctantly decided to leave his son behind, entrusted to the care of his faithful dog. While outdoors the weather had got even more violent and the trapper was forced to take refuge overnight in a stand of trees.

When the trapper returned the next morning, he got to the cabin to find the door open and the furniture overturned. A fierce struggle had taken place. There was no sign of his son and his dog lay in the corner looking at him guiltily, with blood all over his mouth. The trapper was deeply distressed, and quickly figured out what had happened. The dog, without food, had turned on his son and killed him. Gathering his axe from his side in a fury the trapper killed his dog.

He then set about searching furiously for some sign of his son. There was still a faint chance his son was alive. As the trapper frantically searched he heard a familiar cry, coming from under the bed. He tipped the bed up to discover his son. He was unharmed, without a scratch or drop of blood upon him. The trapper, flooded with relief, gathered his son in his arms. When he turned around he saw a dead wolf, lying in the corner of the cabin. Then the trapper realised why his faithful dog had been covered in blood. It was the one who had saved his son.

How often we can be like that trapper, quickly assuming to know the truth about a person when in reality our judgements are terribly off mark.

Source: unknown

The Priest and the Principal

A story is told of a Conflict Counsellor who received a phone call from a Catholic priest. The priest and the principal of the Parish School had seen their relationship deteriorate to the point where they could no longer communicate. The Conflict Counsellor spoke to both men and said “Before we get together I want you to write down for me what you think the problems are in your relationship.”

The Principal and the priest came to the first meeting. They sat opposite one another and the conflict counsellor asked them to read out their lists.

The Priest said “I feel that the principal resents my presence in the school. I would like to play a larger role but feel I can’t. I’d especially like to be more involved in religious education but I feel pushed out.”

The Principal then read out his assessment of the problem. “I feel that the priest doesn’t want to get involved in the school. I can’t understand why he feels this way because we desperately need him, especially in religious education.”

Source unknown.

The Fall of Vulcan

Ancient Greek mythology tells the sad tale of Vulcan, the son of the supreme gods Jupiter and Juno. Vulcan was particularly attached to his mother, the more so as Jupiter’s philandering and abusive ways brought her such pain. Vulcan lavished affection on Juno and sought to comfort her when she suffered Jupiter’s neglect.

One day, after Juno had unleashed a fit of jealousy, Jupiter punished her by hanging her out of heaven, held by a golden chain. Vulcan, distressed by his mother’s plight, grabbed a hold of the chain, and pulling with all his might, dragged Juno back into heaven and was about to set her free, when Jupiter returned. Infuriated that his son had interfered in what he saw as an issue between husband and wife, Jupiter hurled Vulcan out of heaven.

The space between haven and earth was so great that Vulcan’s fall lasted a whole day and night. Hitting the earth he injured one of his legs, leaving him lame and deformed for the rest of his life.

But it was not the fall that hurt Vulcan as much as his mother’s response. Though he had risked everything to rescue his mother she never made the slightest effort to discover whether the had reached earth safely. Wounded by her indifference and ingratitude, Vulcan vowed he would never return to Olympus and withdrew into the solitude of Mount Aetna.

The myth highlights what is a very human reality, the wounds that can come not from what people do to us, but what people don’t do. To feel unappreciated and unvalued can create deep emotional wounds, and generally, they cut deeper the closer we are to the person who doesn’t value us. One of the great relational disciplines then is to learn to express gratitude for the goodness and kindness of others, to appreciate their actions and let them know we appreciate them. In the mythology of Olympus Vulcan’s entire future could have been shaped differently if only his mother had shown some gratitude.

Source: Scott Higgins. Mythical information found in Guerber, Myths of Greece and Rome

The Elephant Man

The movie The Elephant Man tells the true story of John Merrick. Merrick was born in the slums of England in 1862, and almost from birth experienced massive rejection due to his grotesque appearance. Merrick suffered abnormalities that resulted in a large and severely misshapen head, loose, rough skin, and twisted arms and legs.

His mother loved dearly, but died when he was ten. His new step-mother didn’t take to him, and at twelve, he was expected to work to contribute to the family finances. After two years working in a cigar shop he was dismissed because his deformities meant he could not keep up the required pace. His father found him a job, of all things, as a door-to-door salesman. This only accentuated Merrick’s self-loathing. When people opened their doors and saw him people would literally scream and slam the door in his face. Those who knew who he was refused to answer their doors.

After this “failure” Merrick’s father began beating him. Merrick wound up on the street and was rescued by a kindly uncle, the only person who would help him out. Not wishing to further burden his uncle Merrick left to live in a squalid workhouse for drunks, cripples and the mentally ill. His life there was so miserable that he offered himself to a carnival owner as a sideshow act.

Merrick was a hit. People would pay money to line up and observe him like some animal in a zoo. But the carnival finally provided him with security and a place he belonged. It was while the sideshow was in London that Merrick met Dr Frederick Treves. Disgusted by Merrick’s treatment Treves wanted to help. He gave Merrick his card, but lost track of him. The police started clamping down on the sideshows, so Merrick was sent to Belgium to work in a sideshow there. But when Belgian police also clamped down Merrick was forced to make his way back to England. As he limped down Liverpool Street station, foul smelling and misshapen, a crowd gathered simply to watch him.

The police took him aside to sort things out, but Merrick’s speech was so slurred by his deformities that they couldn’t understand him. It was at this point Merrick showed them Dr Treves’ card. The police sent someone to get him, and Treves rushed back. He took Merrick back to London hospital and began a newspaper appeal for funds to help Merrick. The response was very warm, and soon sufficient that Merrick was able to have his own house on the hospital grounds with permission to live there permanently.

Treves’ care marked a real turning point for Merrick. At first Merrick would act like a frightened child and hide when anyone came into his room, but over time he began to engage some in conversation. Dr Treves discovered that Merrick was in fact highly intelligent and sought to nurture his growth. Yet Merrick’s greatest hurdle was still to fall. All his life Merrick had known only fear and rejection from women. They had literally run from him. So Dr Treves asked an attractive widow he knew if she could come into Merrick’s room, smile at him and shake his hand. When she did Merrick broke down into a ball of tears, later telling Treves that she was the first woman in his life apart from his mother to have showed him kindness.

That was a breakthrough moment for Merrick. In the coming years more and more people, women included, would meet him and show him kindness. He began meeting Countesses and Duchesses. He even had many visits and letters from the Princess of Wales, forming a friendship with her. Throughout this time Dr Treves reports Merrick changed dramatically. He began to develop some self-confidence, to spend time traveling in the country, to discuss poetry with another new friend, Sir Walter Steel.

Merrick died in April 1890. His deformities had never allowed him to sleep lying down as most people do. He had to sleep in a sitting position, his head resting on his knees. He apparently tried one night to sleep lying down, to be more “normal”, and sadly dislocated his neck and died.

Merrick’s story shows us the power of love and acceptance. Rejected all his life, treated as a “thing”, it was the loving welcome of others that liberated him to become all he could be.  His life was made tragic not by his deformities but by the response people made to them.

Source: Reported at www.elephant-house.fsnet.co.uk

The Sky Maiden

An African tribal legend tells of a village where the cows stopped producing as much milk as normal. Puzzled by this a young man of the tribe volunteered to stay up all night to discover what was happening. He hid behind a bush and waited for many hours, til finally, a beautiful young woman carrying a large bucket rode a moonbeam from heaven to earth. She milked the cows, filled her bucket, and headed back up into the sky.

Astonished by this the young man returned the next night, but this time he had set a trap and caught the young woman. He demanded to know who she was, and the young woman replied that she was a Sky Maiden, part of a tribe that lived in the sky and had no food of their own. It was her job to find food and take it back to her tribe. She pleaded to be set free, promising to do anything the young man asked. His condition was this – he would let the young woman go only if she agreed to marry him. The Sky Maiden agreed. She returned home and three days later came back for the wedding. She carried a large box with her and said, “I will be your wife and make you happy, but you must promise never to look inside this box.”

For many weeks the couple were very happy together, but one day, while his new wife was out, curiosity got the better of the young man and he looked inside the box. To his surprise he discovered it had nothing inside! When the Sky Woman returned home her husband’s face instantly betrayed that he had looked inside the box. “You looked inside the box didn’t you?”

“Yes” replied the young man, “but it was empty. What’s so secret about an empty box?”

The Sky Woman was devastated. A tear trickled down her cheek. “I’m sorry, but I can’t live with you any longer” she said.

“Why? Why?” cried the young man. “what’s so terrible about my peeking into an empty box?”

“I’m not leaving because you opened the box” said the young woman. “I’m leaving because you said it was empty. It wasn’t empty. It was full of sky, full of the light and air and smells of my parent’s home. When I went back to the Sky Village that one last time before we married I filled that box with everything that was precious to me. How can I be your wife when what is most precious to me is emptiness to you?”

Source: Told in H Kushner, Who Needs God (Fireside, 1989)

The Good Points

Standard Oil was once one of the biggest companies in the world, led by the famous John D Rockefeller. On one occasion a company executive made a bad decision. It cost the firm $2 million. This was the late 1800’s and $2 million was a huge sum.

Edward Bedford, a partner in the company had an appointment to see Rockefeller. When he entered Rockefeller’s office he saw his boss bent over a piece of paper, busily scribbling notes. When Rockefeller finally looked up he said to Bedford,  “I suppose you’ve heard about our loss? I’ve been thinking it over,” Rockefeller said, “and before I ask the man in to discuss the matter, I’ve been making some notes.”

Bedford looked across the table and saw the page Rockefeller had been scribbling on. Across the top of the page was the heading, “Points in favour of Mr __________.” Below the heading was a long list of the man’s good qualities, including notes of three occasions where he had made decisions that had earned the company many times more than his error had lost.

Bedford later said, “I never forgot that lesson. In later years, whenever I was tempted to rip into anyone, I forced myself first to sit down and thoughtfully compile as long a list of good points as I possibly could. Invariably, by the time I finished my inventory, I would see the matter in its true perspective and keep my temper under control. There is no telling how many times this habit has prevented me from committing one of the costliest mistakes any executive can make — losing his temper.”

Source: reported in Bits & Pieces, September 15, 1994

Bogglehead the Goldfish

Once upon a time there was a goldfish called Bogglehead. He gained his name from the fact that he was one of those awkward looking goldfish with enormous eyes that stuck out the side of his head. Bogglehead was owned by a little girl who used to make his life hell. Every day she’d come into the room, stick her hand in the fishbowl and start swirling the water round and round, creating a whirlpool. She laughed as she saw Bogglehead flailing helplessly in the current. But poor Bogglehead would end up feeling nauseated and giddy. Other times the little girl would try to catch Bogglehead, scoop him up in her hand and watch him flip fearfully, gasping for breath, as she held him aloft out of the water. Then at the last moment she’d drop him back in again.

One day Bogglehead was enjoying a moment’s peace from the little girl when he noticed something gleaming among the stones at the bottom of the fishbowl. He swam down to investigate and to his great surprise found a tiny brass lamp. He rubbed his nose against it and out popped a magic fish genie. “Greetings master. I am the genie of the lamp. I have the power to grant any wish you make.” As Bogglehead pondered what he might wish for he saw the nasty little girl come into the room. “I wish to be that little girl for a day” he blurted out. And with that, whoosh, the little girl became a goldfish and Bogglehead became the little girl.

“Aha!” thought Bogglehead as he towered over the fishbowl and saw the fear in the eyes of the little girl turned goldfish. “Now I can gain my revenge!” With that he placed his hand in the bowl and started to churn the water into a whirlpool. The little-girl-turned-goldfish started to be thrust around by the current, growing nauseas and dizzy. But after a moment Bogglehead cringed with shame and stopped. “I’m sorry” he said, “that’s not fair.” Instead Bogglehead stopped and played carefully and thoughtfully with the little-girl-turned-goldfish. After 24 hours he was returned to his life as a goldfish and the little girl became a little girl again.

But from that day on things were changed. The little girl no longer tormented Bogglehead, but cared for him. Bogglehead in turn came to enjoy visits from the little girl and to look forward to them.

Application 1: Incarnation, God’s love, God’s care. We often find ourselves in the situation of Bogglehead. God sometimes can appear like the monstrous little girl – uncaring, unthoughtful. What would he know about being a human, and the problems we struggle with? The Christian story however assures that God indeed knows what it’s like to be human, knows it from experience. For in Jesus Christ God came to us as a human being, experienced our world as a human, longed as a human, got hurt as a human, experienced hunger and injustice and rejection and pain as a human. Ours is a God who knows what it’s like to walk through life difficulties and so is able to walk with us through our difficulties.

Application 2: Relationships, conflict, perspective, communication. Bogglehead teaches us about the way to relate to others. Often all we do is see them from our own perspective – that person who hurt us or ignores us. But by trying to see things from their point of view we can be transformed.

Source: Scott Higgins