“The One You Feed” -Entirely Unclear
There’s a story that gets passed around, often as a Cherokee legend. Most recently I saw it on Zenpencils.com. (Which, by the way, is excellent). In the story, an old wise man describes the two wolves fighting inside his heart. One is anger, guilt, false pride, and arrogance; the other is kindness, peace, humility, and compassion. One is often black, the other white. The wise man ends by telling his student, “The same fight is going on in your heart.” The student asks, “Which one will win?”
“The one you feed.”
Sometimes I find myself being too critical in my response to narratives. At one point, I could have gone on at great length about why, specifically, I thought the Harry Potter falls short of exploring human hearts. To kill a few more darlings, I’m also deeply troubled by Cameron’s Avatar, Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and America’s favorite To Kill A Mockingbird. Just typing that, I’m tempted to dive in and explain why. I think that’s a useful thing to do. We need to look for what’s wrong, what’s skewed, what’s thoughtless or prejudiced or shallow in the stories we tell.
As the same time, I think all the stories I named (even–sigh–Basterds) have something important in them. They touch on real emotion, or share a useful perspective. So which do I look at? Do I read a story to learn what it can tell me, or to recognize where it leads me astray? Once I realized that was my question, the answer seemed a little clearer: both.
The wolf story is almost certainly not a Cherokee legend. One famous version comes from the evangelical Christian Billy Graham. The sentiment looks Western: there’s God and the Devil, Good and Evil at war. The Native American teachers I’ve heard speak are less quick to pick up that story. In any case, I find it troublesome on several levels. First, there’s the question of why (if it’s not a native American myth) we keep casting it as one. Second, there’s the identification of black with evil and white with good. I’ll get out of the way while Muhammad Ali takes a swing at that one. He makes me smile and he makes me think. Third, I don’t think you can divvy up emotions or even characteristics into “goods” and “bads” like that. I’ve felt anger when a student disrespected and hurt another student–and I don’t think that was bad. I think my anger was useful, important. And guilt? Someone without guilt would be scary. While it’s uncomfortable (and can get out of hand), guilt, respected and given its place in the garden, leads us back when we’ve started stepping on growing things. Try it for yourself–think of an emotion, a “bad” one and a “good” one, and ask yourself if the same thing could be useful, could help (or hurt) if you held it in a different way in a different situation. Looking through my own garden, I haven’t found any evil plants. Some are poisonous and some are sweet, some have thorns and some are soft, but poisons can be important medicines, and thorns can teach us respect.
And there is still something beautiful in that wolf story. I think we do become the habits we make. We do “feed” different perspectives, different identities, different ways of being in the world. We grow into who we choose.
So I’m troubled by the story, and I like it. I push it away, and I follow it.