On The Writing of Fairy Tales in the Real World

Hi Friends,

I wrote a crazy book! Here is the backstory: I researched and taught all things related to children’s brain development and learning. Side note: We used to think adult brains stopped developing and just waited around to start atrophying. Recent neuroscience suggests that doesn’t have to be true. In fact, you can grow new neural pathways whenever you decide it’s worth your effort. But this is true in the sense that you can have rock solid abs whenever you decide it’s worth the effort. Which is to say, the effort can’t be overlooked when making a decision about whether to pursue the goal or not. In the book, a series of events required me to examine the current functionality of my brain and results indicated I was in need of a tune-up.

What I noticed was ancient wisdom and modern personal development strategies are really just stories and ideas designed to build new neural pathways. So that our brains continue to develop. And we continue to grow as humans. 

Ancient wisdom was typically passed on in the form of a folktale. One of my favorite folktales is of the Man who Lost his Horse. I first heard it as an old Yiddish fable. Since then, I’ve learned that Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucian scholars all like to associate with that story. So, I’ll conclude it speaks to all of us humans on a visceral level. An interesting character once said folktales can be more true than history. 

So the story goes, a decent farmer is going about his business when lo and behold his horse runs away. He needs this horse to farm his land. Neighbors felt sorry for the man and commiserated with him on his misfortune. 

“Oy vey. Isn’t this awful? Now you will surely starve!” 

“Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The horse returned the next day. What’s more, it brought a mate. Now the farmer had two horses!

“Mazel Tov! I envy your riches! You are a good man and so you have been blessed! ”

“Maybe yes, maybe no.”

This new horse was magnificent but difficult to tame. The farmer’s son, feeling invincible as sons often do, climbed atop the wild horse for an adventure. He was thrown from the saddle and broke his leg. 

“How tragic! Your son had too much Chutzpah and now he is lame. He is useless to you because he can’t work the fields. He can’t even walk! You will be ruined.”

“Maybe yes, maybe no.”

What happened next, nobody could have predicted. The Grand Army came through and conscripted every able bodied young man in the village. They didn’t give the farmer’s feeble son a second glance. 

“The Gods smile upon you my friend. You have your son safe at home while our boys are off to the slaughter. Nothing could be worse. Your son’s leg will mend and he will be the only eligible bachelor in the whole village. You are the luckiest man I know.”

“Maybe yes, maybe no.”

Rough translation of the ending is that the yin and yang of good luck and bad goes on for eternity because nobody ever really knows what will happen next.

In the story, we are primed to believe an outcome one way or another is either categorically good or categorically bad. But at each turn, we are provided with evidence to the contrary. Because we know it’s only a folktale, and therefore an abstraction, we don’t feel a strong emotional connection to the characters. When we turn down the volume on our emotions, we can more readily access the most powerful parts of our brain and reason that the events occurring in the story aren’t inherently good or bad, but rather neutral. And we cleverly detect that a person’s judgment of the events is the true source of suffering. That feels enlightening, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, in the real world, it isn’t as straightforward to transfer all that enlightenment into action. Whenever we feel strongly attached to our story of good and bad, it is hard to see what else could be true. Take the overturn of Roe V. Wade as an example. At first blush, it is hard to put lipstick on that pig. Or is it?

Here is where you get to put your judgment down and decide what you want to happen next. Because the voice inside your head isn’t omniscient, or true, or infallible. It is mental chatter that you create, either subconsciously or on purpose. Put another way, you create your own reality with the stories you tell yourself. 

So, you can hide under your covers and wait for the Handmaid’s Tale to manifest. And you will prove yourself true because you will be powerless. Or, you can decide the overturning of Roe v. Wade was just the catalyst you needed to remind you how important women’s equality is for all of us. Literally, all of our lives depend on it. Even the male kind and the unborn kind. All the human lives depend on gender equality to combat climate change. 

So, is the overturning of Roe v. Wade the worst thing that could ever happen?Maybe yes, maybe no. 

In order to enact really potent and meaningful change, we don’t need to wait around for one charismatic hero to pull off some herculean and magnificent feat. That almost never works; just ask my good friend Donella Meadows. All we really need is for a pool of humans to apply little nudges on a steady and consistent basis in the direction we desire. That is the great thing about momentum. You don’t really have to do very much or know all the answers, you just have to get started right away. 

Get started doing what? Imagining the future you want. I’m imagining a future where equality is a value that we share as a society because we understand we all benefit. In my future, we take pride in the officials we elect. And those that seek office, do so as a public service. They engage in public discourse, listen to what is important to us, and make decisions with the long-term in mind. Oftentimes, what is really important to us is staying alive. Staying alive under comfortable conditions is a close second. These are widely shared goals that most constituents would have in common. They can be accomplished by (1) promoting equality, and (2) confronting climate change. 

Consequently, in my future, I’ll be planting trees (this would make more sense, if you’ve already read the book I am now shamelessly plugging for a second time). And teaching my daughter how to negotiate her salary. And teaching my son why he will want to change diapers and make bottles in the middle of the night. And voting. Lots of voting (gag, even in the primaries where the extreme voices can be amplified or dimmed). 

If the overturning of Roe v. Wade is actually the best thing that could ever happen, how can you make that true? Turn your emotions down, dust off your imagination, and write yourself a good old-fashioned fairy tale. Maybe all the people will say, this went too far. Maybe an equal and opposite reaction will surprise us and a few years from now, we will marvel at all the progress we’ve made. All thanks to the momentum created by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Dream up your best possible fairy tale and then look for evidence that you can make your dreams true. 

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