What I learned about flexibility and curiosity from the stories of my childhood.
Three books taught me the value of flexibility and curiosity long before I understood why they were important. I read James and the Giant Peach* by Roald Dahl, The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, and The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles byJulieEdwards** so often in elementary school and beyond, that I still quote passages from them. I did so often enough that my own children probably thought they were my words, until I introduced them to the originals.
I now see flexibility and curiosity as the two most vital lessons in my life and work. –
By their very nature they are also lessons that I have not finished learning. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but the young protagonists in these books all start out in various states of stuckness, of unhappiness with the way things are. They have reacted with despair, boredom, pride, or fright, and they are each convinced that how they see things is the only way. They are all on the cusp of becoming more true to themselves and more independent, but change is uncomfortable, and feels dangerous, even if it’s exactly what they want.
After the death of his parents and horrible treatment by his aunts, James embarks on a fantastic journey from rural England to New York City inside the pit of a giant peach. He rolls down a steep hill, bobs in a shark-infested ocean, and flies over the Atlantic in the company of equally giant insects who have a very hard time getting along. Milo begins what he thinks is an imaginary, and probably really stupid game in his city apartment, and ends up, hounded by the demons of Ignorance, rescuing the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason who have been imprisoned in a castle in the air. He is aided by Tock the Watchdog, who values time, and by an oddly appealing creature called the Humbug, who, despite some pretty bad character defects, manages to help anyway. Lindy and her brothers travel with a Nobel Prize winning scientist to another realm where all the creatures that human beings no longer believe in are hiding. Together they explore the country in search of the last Whangdoodle, hindered by hostile creatures who are determined to send them home.
Somehow, by the ends of their stories
James, Milo, and Lindy and her brothers have seen life from a broader perspective. They have been, for a while, embarrassed by their faulty assumptions or endangered by their own foolishness. They have been able to endure the discomfort of how things are, and have learned how to hope (and work for) something better. They’ve all walked the path between imagination and reality, and found that a healthy dose of one always enriches the other, and vice versa. They’ve learned to look closer, to be open to wonder, and to ask questions, lots of them, and not just the questions they are “supposed” to ask. They’ve all stood up to someone in authority, and seen that even someone who has good intentions can still be wrong. They’ve all learned to change their minds, to shift their position if it’s not working for them, and to accept that sometimes they are the well-intentioned person who needs to hear the difficult truth from someone with more wisdom.
My own story is not over yet, and I know I’m not done with these lessons.
I’m glad that I have such good, old friends to accompany me on the journey! I hope you have your own favourite stories that help you through the challenging times.
*The movie produced by Tim Burton just wasn’t the same, and was even more heavy-handed in my opinion.
**Yes, she’s the actress from Sound of Music that you know as Julie Andrews, married to Blake Edwards.
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