I don’t exactly know what happened in my life to make me so sensitive to other’s opinions and feelings. Maybe I was just hardwired that way? Or was it programming?
I’ve often leaned towards programming. Biblical verses come to mind specifically. “He (God) must increase. I must decrease.” and “Let nothing be done of selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.” Then, there is the story of the Good Samaritan who helps an injured man on the side of the road, while others simply pass him by, which totally villainizes the two men who wanted nothing to do with the injured man.
The other day, I was sorting through our board books to see what we had, because, with a paper-shredding son with autism and an almost 2-year-old, there is no such thing as too many board books. I stumbled upon my favorite story from childhood – “The Little Engine that Could.” Of course, this needed to be read to all children within the vicinity so I began out loud with my best narrative voice. As my three youngest children gathered round I felt that small glow in my heart that reading brings. (Is it just me or is reading to your child not one of the best things ever?!?! Okay, I know. It’s probably just me.)
Of course, as the story unfolded, I realized that the story was really only a repeat of the good Samaritan story from the Bible. Mortified, I listened to myself characterize the weary and dreadful voice of the old engine, who will not stop to help. My heart sunk further as I listened to my haughty version of the busy, strong engine turning down the opportunity to help the broken engine. Finally, the spry, naïve voice of the Little Engine that Could emerged on the scene. The hero of the story takes up the cause of the broken engine, regardless of practicality and with sheer will muscles the heavy load over the mountain.
“How wonderful.” I say dryly.
And what’s not to love? The underdog saves the day. The ugly, unlikeable characters fates are untold so that we may use our magnificent imaginations to prescribe their (likely) tumultuous futures. All of the good little children on the other side of the mountain get their toys and candy and all manner of spoils.
Here’s the thing.
Each of those engines had his own story too. Perhaps the old engine was weary from hauling his lifetime engine partner to his engine-grave. Yes, I know that sounds far fetched, but let’s humanize theses engines for a minute. Let’s say the old engine is an older women who has cared for her husband through 20 years of dementia, only to bury him that very morning. Should she really stop to help yet another person? Could she even carry their burden 10 feet, let alone up a mountain?
I don’t know. Only she does.
And the busy, strong engine – what if she or he was on their way to other children, not necessarily good or bad, but downtrodden and without hope? Perhaps this engine isn’t bringing the spoils of toys and candy, but rather simple food and water. Should this strong and hurried really stop to facilitate the export of toys and candy? What about the other children, not necessarily good or bad, who live over in the next valley and are starving? What about them? I mean, at the end of the story, the children who receive the toys and candy didn’t seem to be particularly hurting for shelter and food.
Then, there is the broken down engine who needs help. Perhaps he is a wonderful engine that is just having a bad day, but also, quite possibly, he didn’t fill up his gas tank before leaving. Not only that, but it isn’t even his first offense. In fact, what if this particular engine is on the verge of decommission, because of his lack of responsibility? Or maybe he is just having a bad day. Who knows?
Not me, that’s who. Only he knows if he did his best.
Lastly, the engine that could! Should he really take on a load that he is unsure he can carry? Yes, risk and strong-will are important, but so is wisdom. Perhaps conventional wisdom would tell him to go for help instead of risking the load of wonders for the good little children.
I don’t know, but this story is full of striking metaphors – spoken and unspoken.
What is the point of my long diatribe?
There is a time for risk and fortitude of spirit, as well as a time for asking for help. There is a time to admit we make mistakes. There is a time to say we are too weary to help. There is a time for helping those in the greatest need AND a time for helping those with less need. There is a time for befriending and time for instructing for improvement – and those don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
There is a time for everything.
Helping ourselves and helping others, knowing the difference and what is needed in each moment – those are the lessons I want my children to have.
So perhaps I’ll write a story about “The Little Engine who Called for Help” and “The Weary Engine would Couldn’t” and “The Strong Engine who Stayed on Task.” These stories could be read alongside “The Little Engine that Could”.
Perhaps the world will be a better place once all the little engines are represented. Perhaps the children of the world, neither good or bad, will choose their path wisely.
Perhaps, we can teach our children well. Perhaps, our children can teach us too.