A Reciprocity of Kindness, not Violence, in Stories Old and New

A Reciprocity of Kindness, not Violence, in Stories Old and New November 16, 2018

Javier Allegue Barros, Unsplash.com, CC0

Let’s begin with a story. Not mine this time–something by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. In “The Two Travelers” a tailor and a shoemaker strike out together with different approaches to reciprocity. The tailor is easy on the eyes, playful, hopeful, and generous with any good fortune that comes his way. The shoemaker can’t take a joke, can’t charm his way into easy earnings, and proves cruel both when the tailor falls on hard times and after, for fear of reprisal. (And of course, being a Brothers Grimm story, we’re talking cruel. First, he gouges out the tailor’s eyes in exchange for bread on a journey the tailor didn’t plan well for. And after? He goads an all-too-compliant king to set the tailor impossible tasks under pain of exile or death. Yikes.) But the tailor survives, and thrives, with the help of animal friends made through acts of mercy.

It’s a familiar fairy-tale structure: the journey, the harsh penalties, the Herculean tasks. But as a child, the moral lesson always bothered me. When the tailor triumphs, he attributes success to his mother’s wisdom, “that whoever trusts in God and has only good luck can never fail.” This last is a tautology, of course, but this moral also overlooks the most important factor. God? Where was divinity in this story? Instead, the tailor was generous with his good fortune, and kind to animals who begged him to spare their lives. With the shoemaker, his generosity was met only with cruelty, but with honourable creatures, his kindness was reciprocated in time by kindness of their own.

I call attention to this tale because we tend to forget how much complexity can emerge in “didactic” genres, often while assuming that our problems are ever so much more complex today. But are they? Not only does this Brothers Grimm story have surprisingly nuanced characters, but its lesson also retains striking relevance in 21st-century social-contract discourse. The shoemaker, after all, is not just cruel out of jealousy for the tailor’s happiness, but also for fear of then being treated as he has treated others. Nor is the philosophical divide between the pair tethered to physical appearance–because although the tailor is handsome, the shoemaker is not depicted as the contrast. Even their jobs, tailor and shoemaker, are not so far removed in social function, standing, and likelihood of advancement.

It’s simply their inner natures that stand at odds, as made clear at the story’s outside, in the declaration that “Mountain and valley never meet, but the children of men do, both good and bad.” As such, it isn’t sufficient to sum up the tailor’s trick as “always be kind, and good will always come of it”–because this is plainly untrue. All this kindness comes to naught with regards to the shoemaker, whom we are given to understand will never change. So what good is kindness as a general rule?

The Status Quo: A Reciprocity of Punishment

On Wednesday I discussed fake news, and the underlying human behaviour that helps it end in tragedy. But even as I wrote that post, I was uncomfortable with an implication of its premise. So what if the news that led a mob in a sleepy Mexican town to lynch two men was fake? Would that lynching have been any better, any more reflective of humanist society, if the WhatsApp rumour about child abductors had been true?

Recent news reveals another sordid manifestation of our fixation on reciprocal punishment. Saudi Arabia needs to restore its standing on a world stage horrified by the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. So what has it decided to do? Why, propose sentencing five other men to death! In so doing, it’s plain the government is striving both to distance Prince Mohammed from the assassination, and show the rest of the world that it takes these events (or at least their economic implications) seriously, too.

It’s a clever move, too, because the death penalty remains active in other UN regions. As such, how can even this brutal proposition not be taken as a kind of atonement? A sign that Saudi Arabia is still willing to “play ball” with the rest of its economic partners?

To be a globally minded humanist is difficult in light of our collective histories of retributive justice. Sure, we might want to shift toward using more carrots than sticks, to advocate for a world in which the lesson from one murder is not murder more. But from what moral high ground can we compel others to do the same?

The Tailor’s Subversion of “Eye-for-an-Eye”

Trick question: we can’t compel a darned thing. We can coax, we can argue, we can hope… but ultimately others must decide for themselves how to play their part in the grand prisoner’s dilemma of our lives.

And goodness, is that ever a frustrating lesson to apply to public policy.

These days, I take as my motto that nadie me debe nada: no one owes me anything. It’s an alarming phrase to some, especially when I fill in that I mean nothing is owed to me: not kindness, not honesty, not decency. Rather, I take it as my responsibility to recognize what is on offer, to decide if and when it’s not enough, and to decide if the best response is to request change from someone else or simply walk away. But to howl with rage when someone is unkind? To demand their atonement for past offense? That just compounds my loss with further expenditures of time, energy, and emotional investment.

Meanwhile, this philosophy means I get to be pleasantly surprised, and full of gratitude, at the joys of fellow-travellers who do offer such gifts and more.

Did I learn this from the tailor, considering how often I read The Brothers Grimm as a child? It’s certainly possibly he played a role in my moral education… and so, before proceeding, it bears mentioning the source his character plainly draws upon.

Is it… the Bible?

Well, yeah. Where do you think the Grimms learned to spin tales of such brutality?

From the happy-go-lucky Book of Deuteronomy, we get “And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (19:21) as just response to anyone who accuses falsely against his brother. But then the anonymous writer of Matthew gives Christ to say, in counter:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)

And yet… the tailor doesn’t go quite so far as this. He gives only what is forced from him, and at the end of the tale, the shoemaker is cast out of the city without any merciful intervention on his part. As he states in the tale, his philosophy is “easy come, easy go”… which admittedly is a lot easier in a world where the dead still speak, and nighttime dew can sometimes return eyeballs whole.

In the real world, this tension between reciprocal punishment and acting with kindness even when punished is far more difficult to enact. (And I get that, I do. I discussed as much on Sunday, in relation to a recent robbery at gunpoint.)

But there’s still something to the tailor’s story–something missing in the words in Matthew–that suggests the missing piece we all could stand to use.

Accounting for the Shoemaker

As noted above, kindness alone is not a sufficient moral takeaway from the Brothers Grimm’s “The Two Travelers”, because the tailor’s kindness is lost on the shoemaker. And what a shoemaker!

It’s hard not to see contemporary conservative politics in this character’s psychology. The shoemaker and tailor do more or less the same kind of work for their society, but the rewards of that work come easier to the tailor due to variations in personality and chance. So what does the shoemaker assume? “The greater the rascal, the better the luck.” In other words, any luck that does not favour himself must be wrought of mischief. His life is hard, so why shouldn’t others be just as hard?

And so, even though the tailor has always shared his good fortune, the moment that the shoemaker can make the tailor feel miserable, too, he takes the opportunity.

How he chooses to do so, too, attests to a great many conservative policies. Even though the shoemaker would also have benefited from the tailor’s earning potential once they both arrived safely in the next town… the shoemaker instead demands an eye for a night’s bread on the spot. And then another one, for the next. Fitting punishment, in his mind, for the tailor being in need in the first place! If he’s in a hard place, he should have to work hard to get out of it!

As such, just as many conservative politicians choose to slash public programs that target the vulnerable and the struggling, so too does the shoemaker chooses to exacerbate the tailor’s suffering in order to… motivate him to be better down the line?

But better how, as a blind tailor?

No Monsters, Only Humans

In some ways, then, the real tragedy in this story is the stunted life of the shoemaker, like the stunted lives of many conservatives who play into retributive forms of social-contract building. It’s emotional violence, no more, no less, that lies behind the supposed “fiscal responsibility” of such (not all) conservatism. The shoemaker feels he has suffered, even when the tailor shared his successes, and he wants the tailor to hurt, too.

More unfortunate still, the shoemaker genuinely believes that the tailor will treat him as he has been treated, if given the opportunity to wield such power! How fundamentally awful his worldview, that he doesn’t even believe that the tailor could espouse another! Deep down, the shoemaker regards the tailor as a hostile threat because the shoemaker is a hostile threat, and can imagine no other way to move through the universe.

Putting the shoemaker’s smallness aside, then, is critical to understanding the most important lesson about reciprocity in “The Two Travelers.” No, kindness alone is not sufficient to guarantee good outcomes–because there are too many who genuinely cannot fathom a world predicated on its practice. In Saudi Arabia’s government, sure, and in plenty of governments and citizens’ groups closer to home.

A better lesson, then–if also a more complicated lesson, because it relies on a network of better behaviour–is that a reciprocity of kindness can restore the world.

And that requires paying closer attention to those who reciprocate… while also allowing ourselves to decouple time, energy, and emotional investment from those who do not.

Bonus Story

The Two Travellers, by M L Clark

When mountain and valley meet in landslide, much is destroyed and much revealed–as it often goes, too, with human beings.

A soup ladler and a hash slinger met one weary evening at a run-down country diner by the side of the open road. The soup ladler was wearing thin on energy and intrigue, having journeyed far in search of a good home, while the hash slinger was fresh to her adventures, and warmed to the attentions of any friendly face that turned her way. And ever so many did, in that dusty parking lot.

“Can’t have them all,” the soup ladler muttered, with no small share of envy.

“Oh, but I think that one’s got an eye for you,” the hash slinger replied, pursing her lips at one tall shock of silver already halfway through the door.

The soup ladler soured at this, thinking the hash slinger had made this claim in jest. But then the hash slinger nudged her, offering a mint, and nodded at the next fellow stepping out. “Let’s see if he’s got room, and headed the right way for us both.”

And that was a fine proposition for the soup ladler, whose fatigue had her doubting that her own charm would prove enough to swing a ride, but who also saw the sense in the hash slinger’s plan for safe arrival, too.

So they approached the fellow, in his simple T and jeans, and learned that he was indeed heading out their way–the soup ladler to a motel where there might be room; the hash slinger to an all-night restaurant where she had heard the owners sometimes put up stragglers for a while.

“Sure, it’s no trouble,” he said. “Besides, it’s not every man who lands himself such pretty company for free.”

The hash slinger laughed at this, but the soup ladler didn’t like how the fellow looked the hash slinger up and down while her head was thrown back in delight.

“Listen,” she said, drawing the hash slinger to one side. “You’ve got your stop and I’ve got mine, but I’m not sure which comes first. If we go with him, you might be alone for the last mile.”

But the hash slinger shrugged with perfect calm. “Oh, sure, it’s possible, but by that time we’ll all be good friends, won’t we? What’s a mile more, if it turns out the last stop’s mine?”

The soup slinger startled at this–so quick had she been to expect some cynical remark instead! And so, in her rare surprise, she took upon her the world through the hash slinger’s eyes–a world seen with such earnestness, and hope–and the effort humbled her. When had she last seen the world as filled with friends we simply hadn’t made just yet?

Still, the soup ladler had not lost all common sense, so she exhaled through her nose, lips pursed against the trepidation of her first real leap in years, and took a twenty from her pocket, to hold up between them when all three reconvened.

“We’ll pay, of course, to help with gas.”

“As you like,” said the fellow, his smile still upon the other. “Hop in.” And he opened the passenger-side door to the hash slinger, who took the invitation before the soup ladler could suggest them both in back.

For the next hour along the darkening desert road, their car was filled with auto-playlists and idle chatter, and long pauses in which the hash slinger started to drowse and the fellow encouraged her, go on, rest awhile, both of you, I’ll wake you when we arrive–which was all the coaxing the soup ladler needed to stay awake and alert, from her narrow perch in back.

But the hash slinger saw no menace in the offer, and thanking the fellow for his kindness, she sighed contentedly, and fell asleep against a bunched up shirt against the glass.

“The greater the idiot,” thought the soup ladler, staring at the half-moon of the scowl greeting her in her own window glass, “the better the stranger’s luck.”

And so the soup ladler’s low mood only worsened as the car pressed on–her eyelids heavy, so heavy from the weight of her suspicions, while the hash slinger slept the sleep of foolish angels. By the time the fellow drew to a stop outside the the soup ladler’s destination, the soup ladler was so angry at the hash slinger’s trusting nature that she had half a mind to leave her in her slumber, to learn firsthand the hard, cruel turns of fortune that so often lurked beyond fine and friendly smiles.


“Easy now,” the fellow whispered, gesturing at the door with plain eagerness for the soup ladler to go. “Let’s not wake her.”

And in that moment the soup ladler took upon her the world through his eyes… and saw how he assumed that everyone was only looking out for themselves–that the soup ladler only cared that she had made it safely home–so why not look out for his only needs, too?

But in years past… though there had been many hardships… had there not also been the barkeep who told her not to drink what she had left out of sight for just a moment? And the bus driver on the last route of the night, who had dropped her right by her front door? And the stranger who had put her in a taxi at a party where she had lost consciousness for a while?

And so the soup ladler opened the side door, staring at the fellow all the while, and closed it as hard as his worldview seemed to her.

The hash slinger started awake. “Wha–?”

“I was just saying,” the soup ladler announced, “that I’d got my stop wrong. Mine’s pretty much right next to yours after all.”

“…Right,” said the fellow. His two hands slowly clenched and unclenched on the steering wheel. “Well, we all make mistakes.”

“Oh, tell me about it!” yawned the hash slinger, returning to wakefulness with a broad smile, and a dream she was dying to share. The fellow remained quiet for the last mile along the road, and let them off with only a quick goodbye.

“Well, would you look at that! He must be tired,” said the hash slinger to the soup ladler–the latter already glancing moodily back along the road, thinking of how much farther before rest she still had to go.

“Not quite,” she said, and then, glancing up and catching a quizzical look, the soup ladler asked the hash slinger to look at the world through her eyes for a while.

And the hash slinger listened to the soup ladler’s story of the car ride, and the hash slinger’s eyes grew wide and round, and just when the soup ladler was about to start castigating her in earnest–for her foolish trust, for her blissful wonder, for her… her… sheer idiocy in this brutal world don’t you realize what could have happened?!

The hash slinger wrapped her arms around her, and gave the soup ladler the biggest, dearest hug.

The soup ladler froze, surprised by this warm gesture, then sank into the hold.

“Well… well…” she said, spitting out a bit of perfumed hair from about the hash slinger’s neck. “At least take this bit of motherly counsel, won’t you? It’s fine to want the best from others, but quite another always to expect it of them. If you let yourself be surprised by all the hardness also in world, what good will that do you in the end? You’ll go from horror to indignant outrage, that someone, somewhere, once did you wrong, when you were only trying to be kind and good yourself… and then what? Maybe you end up like me, living in that anger, trying to spread the hurt around.”

The hash slinger stepped back to survey the soup ladler, and something glistened in her eyes: a new and necessary complement to her abiding smile. “All right, ‘mom’, I hear you. Better not to pin hopes for all humanity on how one among us acts.”

Then she patted down her jacket, and offered her new friend a parting mint.



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