The Stories We Listen To; the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Our elders teach us things. Sometimes, later, we change our minds about those teachings, sometimes not. Sometimes we take those teachings lightly, only to realize the depth of the wisdom later.

My father told a story about the family just up the road. It was the Great Depression, and the farmer and his wife had six kids. They couldn’t afford to feed their children, of course. No one in that neck of the woods could.

The father came up with an ingenious ploy, however—he gave his kids boiled and heavily salted peanuts every morning for breakfast and then sent them to school. The father told his kids that it was very, very impolite to take a drink of water before lunch time. So, when lunchtime rolled around, the kids were parched and drank huge amounts of water. Consequently, they weren’t hungry for lunch, which they could not bring to school anyhow.

My father told this story not to condemn the neighbor, but to recognize how ingenious he was. His kids, unlike my father and his siblings, weren’t hungry all the time. The neighbor’s kids didn’t need lunch at school, unlike my father, who didn’t have a lunch either.

We human beings are amazing in our adaptability. We are amazing in our gullibility as well.

The story of the family eating salty peanuts strikes me as a deeply American story. Early, many of us experience something tasty—the good things that capitalism brings. Then we learn that it’s impolite to talk about what we have and how we got it. Parched and hungry, we settle for feels good. And it’s a lie.

At the end of a recent trip, late at night, I walked through an airport terminal, mostly closed at that hour. Ahead of me was a young man in a suit. The sort of salesperson that’s everywhere in American airports. He spoke—loudly—into his cell phone, saying, “That’s just like them. Yesterday, welfare queens, today realtors.”

I’m not sure if the “them” was realtors or the programs that make them. But what saddened me was that this young man saw himself as somehow better than others. What was it he had? A degree? A social position? A skin tone? I thought back to that old story my father had told. This young man had eaten the salty peanuts. He had drunk the cool water. He had not yet realized that satiety would not come.

All boiled, salty peanuts. And he was still drinking that water down.

Our elders teach us things. Sometimes, later, we change our minds about those teachings, sometimes not. Sometimes we take those teachings lightly, only to realize the depth of the wisdom later.

The fictions we live by. We can buy the stories. We can drink the water and be satisfied. Or not.

Or not. IMG_2819

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