“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales,” Albert Einstein is credited with saying. “If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
How can reading fairy tales make us more intelligent? Fairy tales have ancient roots–Rumpelstilskin, for example, is said to be 4,000 years old. Yet a little reflection reveals that all good stories, particularly those we associate with children, are as old as humanity. They reveal our deepest human longings and hidden wisdom.
We can get trapped in our stories about who we are and what has happened to us. But the stories we encounter in childhood and beyond can also remind us that we are larger than we think we are, that we have capacities and potentials beyond what our families and our culture allows us to believe. We can discover this by mindfully remember stories that struck a chord in childhood and beyond. Allow yourself to include popular stories and even fairy tales.
As an example, I remember the journeys and characters of Harry Potter and of Jane Eyre. Like Harry Potter, Jane Eyre is an unwanted and unloved child, grudgingly taken in by an aunt who has no intention of helping her find her way in the world. When we meet her, she is tucked away behind curtains, imagining the world based on the pictures in a History of British Birds, and on scraps of fairy tales she hears from a maid, or later from the then-popular novel Pamela. In short, the world Jane lives in is very, very limited but she doesn’t feel limited. Her awareness of the world and her place in it extends far beyond her immediate surroundings. Do you remember that feeling? I remember being a little girl standing on the shore watching ships with international flags pass by on the St. Lawrence River. Even though I was small, there was something spacious in me that felt connected to those ships that had come all the way across the ocean.
Plain, honest, sincere, artistic, “tenacious of life,” Jane Eyre, like Harry Potter–like many real-life children–knows that she is meant to be part of a much greater, more magical life. In spite of everything, that knowledge is within her. Like Harry, Jane is viciously bullied by a fat spoiled cousin, and she is also wretchedly excluded from the warmth of family—she listens to Christmas parties while shut up in a little cupboard with only a doll to love. By her own admission (told many years past childhood), Jane isn’t a sweet child.
She doesn’t receive an invitation by owl to a special school that affirms what she knows in her heart to be true–that she is very different inside than those around her judge her to be. She is not whisked away to Hogwarts but to a wretched school called Lowood. And yet she finds in the depth of her misery, a capacity for self awareness and self-acceptance and a sheer spirit that works a kind of magic. Banished to that grim boarding school, abused beyond all endurance, she at last confronts her aunt as children never did in the Victorian age, calling her bad and hard-hearted.
“Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty.” Even though Jane later feels that this act of vengeance was like a sweet but poisonous wine, it is as necessary to her future development as Harry Potter’s wild escape from his tormentors with its own dash of sweet revenge (his bully of a cousin is given a pig’s tail).
You have to be someone before you can be no one. This seeming paradox, often repeated in Buddhist circles, means that we need to dare to live our lives, to take up space, to express our feelings without holding back, or nothing can be known or transformed. Transformation is not a new thought to think. It is a drama to be lived.
You have to be someone before you can be no one. This insight, often repeated in Buddhist circles, means that we have to dare to really live our lives, to take up space, to express our feelings, or nothing can happen. Transformation is not a new thought to think. It is a process that begins as we dare to open to life, experiencing what it is like to give and receive, to be part of it.
Out walking one winter day, Jane Eyre (who has survived her horrible childhood to become an educated young woman) came upon the dark and brooding Mr. Rochester. His horse slips on the ice and he sprains his ankle, compelling him to ask her to help him back to his horse. Jane doesn’t yet know who Rochester is (the master of the estate where she works as a governess) much less the impact he will have on her life. Yet Jane feels that something has changed. “My help had been needed and claimed: I had given it: I was pleased to have done something; trivial, transitory though the deed was, it was yet an active thing, and I was weary of an existence all passive.”
The stories of both Harry Potter and spirited young Jane Eyre carry rich evidence of the expansive nature of our true selves. The author Joyce Carol Oates observes that much of the power of Jane Eyre comes from the fluid, flame-like nature of her character. The novel “is about a character stimulated into growth–truly remarkable growth.” And what Jane grows into, according to Oates, is “a power of vision that might overpass the limits of her sequestered life, pastoral as it is.”
There is a deep wish inside most of us for a larger life. Most children and adolescents sense that they are capable of greatness–that their hearts and minds are capable of embracing the whole world. Allow yourself to think of a story or a film or a series that reminded you of that wish and capacity.
2 thoughts on “Stories As Reminders”
I especially can relate to your last words, “The secret is knowing that all those things that interest us are doors that swing inward, inviting our own deepest experience to be part of what we see.”
What we see is colored by what we are experiencing inwardly, or another way of putting it is, if we are spiritually fit, we enter a new dimension of life. Some have referred to it as “The Fourth Dimension”
Thank for this comment about “spiritual fitness” leading us into a new dimension. Even when we aren’t so fit, our inner experience blends with what we are perceiving, doesn’t it? Happy songs can be playing when we hear sad news and forever be tinged with a touch of melancholy. It really opens a door just to begin to include how with are in the field of our awareness, to invite our inner experience to be part of what we see and experience.