There is a Sufi story told of how a poor farmer had journeyed to Delhi to beg for some financial help from the great Sufi Saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. After some days of staying at the home of the Holy Man, the peasant realized that he was not going to receive the money which he had hoped for. Accordingly, he went to the saint to bid him farewell, but to his surprise and confusion, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia gave him a gift of his own well-worn slippers. The poor man, disappointed and dispirited, began the long journey back to his village taking, rather reluctantly, the Holy Man's slippers wrapped in his turban. He was not consoled by imagining the mocking laughter of fellow villagers that would surely greet him on his return.
On the way he met a richly dressed disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia who halted before him, sensing the fragrance of his master about the farmer. When the rich man discovered that the farmer was indeed carrying something of the Holy Man, he offered to give his horse, a bag of gold, and the very silk coat he was wearing in exchange for the blessed slippers. The farmer, thinking he had come face to face with a rich but genial madman, thought himself lucky to make such a fine bargain, and gladly gave the worthless slippers for the riches. The story concludes that each felt that they had gained the greater treasure.
This story, no doubt, could be understood at many levels, but among other things, it does illustrate how we often fail to recognize treasure in any other sense than material benefit, and how often we do not value what is apparently ordinary. The role of the story in school, which one could compare to the well-worn slippers of the Sufi saint, is usually considered peripheral or merely entertaining. It is sometimes seen as a diversion or distraction in the serious process of learning, and, is therefore, not valued.
The power of the fairy tale, the parable or the legend, lies in its capacity to go beyond the fact and the finite. It is the language of art, poetry, and the story that often transforms, through the active imagination of the listener and the teller, the thought and thing, the ideal and image, into something new and hitherto unknown.
In the Arabian story of 'A Thousand and One Nights', the very act of listening to the story proves to be healing, for the murderous hate of the king is gradually transformed to an enduring love for Scheherazade, the teller of the stories. The stories save the life of the story teller, the future of the kingdom, and restore the king to sanity. Such stories that somehow reveal the innermost core of the different characters, and are concerned with the complexity of human nature, address the open-ended questions of: 'Who am I?' or 'What is meaningful?' or 'How am I to relate to the world around?' or 'How do Icontend with evil forces in the world?'
It is through the story that the child is often enabled to move towards maturity and a greater sense of responsibility, because the story is not merely abstract, disembodied moral injunctions, but it is an invitation to explore and make the story a part of himself or herself. It could be understood as a way of connecting the outer world to the inner world in a process of reflection and so brings about, albeit unconsciously, a state of integration between the world of feeling and the rational mind.
Teachers are often not sufficiently conscious of the deeper implications of stories they tell. Krishna Kumar in his perceptive analysis of how stories are used in text books ¹ points out how stories are frequently chosen that reflect the most conservative elements in society. Stories may, in fact, work negatively in re-enforcing hierarchical patterns and be couched in a context of feudalism where the individual has little skill for growth towards maturity. They may also foster an artificial romanticism.
Stories may work on many levels: conscious, pre-conscious or unconscious, and one writer has compared the story teller to a shower of seeds. Some seeds may fall on fertile ground and quickly take root and spring up. Other seeds may lie dormant until the time is ripe to grow, and yet others may fall on waste ground only to be re-absorbed and re-formed, for nothing is ever lost.
Certain stories have their own dynamics, and a person can only digest with the intellect what he or she is ready for. The process cannot be forced or accelerated. For example, the story for a child may be drained of all meaning if the teacher overlays or crushes the experience of the story with moral judgements and over-rationalization. The story sometimes gently makes accessible what might otherwise be unbearable. The Twelfth century Sufi poet, Rumi, pictures this in his poem Story water:
A story is like water
that you heat for your bath.
It takes messages between the fire
and your skin. It lets them meet,
and it cleans you!
Very few can sit down
in the middle of a fire itself
like a salamander or Abraham.
We need intermediaries.
Water, stories, the body,
all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what's hidden.
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know
and then not.²
Bruno Bettelheim in his book The Uses if Enchantment, argues that the fairy tale, far from tempting the child to withdraw from the challenge of the so-called real world, in fact prepares the child by building the inner resources and so provides the very means to cope with the harsh reality of the world, with its confusion of good and evil.
The fairy tale invariably deals with the situation where the hero is forced to go out into the world, and discover a level of independence despite experiences of loss, rejection and weakness. The fairy tale is marked by an underlying optimism whereby the hero, in a courageous struggle against dark forces, is never defeated or crushed. The protagonist encounters aggression, selfishness and brutality as inevitably as it is part of the light and shadow, pain and joy in our own lives. Yet the experience of loss, death and rejection often prove to be the turning point of a deeper understanding and ultimately lead to a more meaningful relationship with others, and the physical world around.
The child's fear of the unknown, the dark and the dangerous, is often given shape and form in the fairy tale and myth. Bruno Bettelheim suggests that the child is actually reassured by the feeling that in some way such terrors have been lived through, and that he or she is not alone. Not only is the meeting of dark and light, good and evil universal, and therefore shared, but very often in the story there is a friend and helper, animate or inanimate, that supports and guides, and so reinforces the sense of triumph of good, despite evil forces.
The proverbial grandparent, who kept the child spellbound with stories, is, alas, becoming rarer, and so the school may be the child's main resource from which to build a fund of stories. As parents and teachers, we can choose to share with children stories that have added to and continue to widen our own experience and sense of meaningfulness. Intuitively we may gauge what is relevant and right at particular times, for particular children, and draw on our own and others' treasure house of stories, and so bring alive in our relationship with the child, stories of treasure lost and found, stories of journeys that mirror our own passage through life, stories of quests that give shape to our innermost yearnings, and stories that seem to contradict and turn upside down notions of success and power, to re-affirm values of honesty, purity and humility, which are frequently highlighted through the perceptive eyes of the simpleton, the fool and the apparently weak.
A common theme that recurs in different forms is that of the possibility of one's deepest wishes being fulfilled. Fundamental to the process of maturing is this capacity to discern where our 'heart's desire' actually lies. Stories bring into focus the dilemma through humour where wishes are wasted; for example, in the tale of 'The Three Wishes' where husband and wife quarrel and so lose everything. Sometimes these unwise longings end in tragedy, as in the story of Kaikai, who, when offered a boon, insists on forcing the kingdom on her unwilling son, Bharat. Occasionally, the protagonist discovers true freedom in asking for something beyond greed or ambition.
A child's involvement in the story is in part related to the adult's enthusiasm, interest and belief in its value. This is communicated at many levels, including the willingness and patience to retell stories. Adults unwittingly, on occasion, erode a story's impact either by reducing it to a single meaning to impart a moral lesson, or by stripping it bare by asking too many 'closed questions' to test a child's memory or language ability, and so give no room for thought or reflection.
It is the space between the teller and the child that allows the child to creatively identify with the story, and in so doing extend, change, or even distort it to make it more meaningful. It is this process of becoming part of the story that lays the foundation for imaginative writing at a later stage.
Stories can be further shared; for example, children can make books together, each illustrating one part of the story. A scroll can also be made that can be unrolled in the telling. Dramatization, mask making and puppetry are also ways that make a story more memorable and enable children in turn to learn the art of story telling.
The story, from fairytale to fable, from legend to myth, is a way of awakening the child, at different stages of growth, to an inner world of meaning which draws the child beyond the self-centred existence to an ever-growing and widening sense of relatedness and sympathy, where dark and light, known and unknown, loss and discovery, each have a part.
Rumi speaks of two kinds of intelligence, both of which have a place. The first is acquired 'as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts from books, from what the teacher says.' The second is described as 'freshness in the chest.' The second knowing is 'a fountain heard from within you, moving out.' The story is surely one way of activating and awakening this 'spring within', and in turn creating a more just and harmonious society without. 'In another poem Rumi cautions:
But don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth, without complicated explanation, so that everyone will understand the passage 'We have opened you.'³
It is the delicate role of a teacher to recognize that each child is in the process of unfolding his or her own story, and that listening to stories is like learning a language, and a way of looking, that liberates each one's story from within.
1. 'Social Character of Learning', Chapter 2, by Krishna Kumar, Sage Publications 1989.
2. The Essential Rumi, Translations by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, Harper and Collins, 1995, pg 171
3. 'The Essential Rumi' unfold your own Myth, op. cit.