“Children like being frightened by fairy tales. They have an inborn need to experience powerful emotions. […] Andersen had the courage to write stories with unhappy endings. He didn’t believe that you should try to be good because it pays (as today’s moral tales insistently advertise, though it doesn’t necessarily turn out that way in real life), but because evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned.”
-Wisława Szymborska, Unrequired Reading
It’s been a long time since I read Hans Christian Andersen, but I remember clever children and tricky troubles and shapes inside the shadows. I remember adults who did not mean well. I remember wolves.
If I understand her, Szymborska says we should stop trying to scrub the fear from our children’s lives. We should stop telling them that everything will be okay. It’s not true, and besides, we don’t need that crutch. It’s okay to be frightened. It’s okay to get hurt. It’s okay to die, and you’re going to, and along the way, I hope, you’re going to do something else. Inside our fears of spiders and burning flames and commitment’s restrictions there are the beauties of fire and life and love. We don’t want a fire that doesn’t burn. It wouldn’t warm us. We want to learn how to tend a fire carefully. We want to learn how to treat the world with respect, and so live in it. We want our hearts to grow.
If we accept that the reward for our goodness will not be the end of our pain, we’re free to see what the reward really is. We’re free to walk across sharp rocks, not immune to their edge, but aware of how to set down our feet. We’re free to grow tall, to feel deeply, to live in a world that hurts and heals. We’re free to build our house, invite in new friends and listen to the wolves.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get beyond prejudice. I’m not sure I’ll ever get beyond hate, or anger, or thoughtless fear. Those things, Szymborska says, aren’t evil. Evil is the fruit of a tree that never grew. We can grow up, intellectually and emotionally, until we’re mature enough to be afraid and still be brave. Until we can walk through the forest of prejudice and keep looking for the spring of connection. To get there, Szymborska says, we’d better accept our fear. We’d better give our kids a chance to feel their own.
So bring on the stories: the wild ones, the frightening ones. Bring on the the monsters and the unsettling dreams. Maybe my hate will always be with me. Maybe I’ll read (or write) stories about it. Maybe, that way, I’ll learn to never give it a knife.