Posts Tagged ‘compromise’

Once upon a time, in a kingdom not so very far from here, there lived a king. He lived in a beautiful castle. The castle was full of courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, like many castles are. The castle was also surrounded by a moat–also part of your standard castle. But what made this castle, and kingdom, different was that while most moats are filled with water, and are dug down into the earth, this moat was dug down through the earth and deep into a layer of ice (a really not-so-thick layer of ice, it turned out when scientists from the castle got around to measuring it) that stretched not only under the castle, but under all the kingdom. And under the ice was a fathomless, dark, icy ocean.

You might think that building a castle on a layer of not-so-thick ice is a not-so-bright idea, and you might be right. The scientists in the castle agreed. “The ice under our kingdom can only sustain just so much weight,” they told each other in portentious voices. “The kingdom is growing too heavy. Unless we can reduce the weight of our kingdom the ice will surely break. No can know what will happen then.”

Since the scientists were speaking in carrying voices, it wasn’t long before the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles knew about the kingdom’s weight problem. And once they knew, of course, it was only seconds before word had spread to the farthest corners of the kingdom.

“We’ll just make the castle weigh less,” said the captains of industry. “Easy peasy. We’ll take all the grain out of the emergency food supply rooms. Then we’ll close the rooms down. No grain plus no peasants walking in the castle means a lighter castle! Problem solved.”

“But where will the grain go?” asked the king.

“We’ll buy it,” said the captains of industry. “Easy peasy. You can give us a great price, because after all we’ll be saving the kingdom by lightening the castle.”

“But then how will the people get grain to eat in hard times?”

“We’ll sell it to them. Easy peasy!” said the captains of industry.

“It doesn’t seem to me that taking the grain everybody in the kingdom has contributed, selling it to you at a great price, and then making the people buy it back in hard times is really fair, but let me think about it,” said the king.

Next came the courtiers.

“We have a better plan,” they said. “We’ll just force everyone who wasn’t born in our kingdom to leave. Then we won’t need so much grain for emergency supplies. We’ll sell what we need to the captains of industry, and they’ll sell it back to the peasants. Since so many people will have to leave the nobles can buy more land, which means they’ll need to find more peasants, and it’ll be good for everybody. We might even be able to permanently remove the grain storage areas in the castle!”

“Well,” said the king, “almost all of us came from other kingdoms ourselves. Besides, many of the people who have come here from other lands actually put more into the emergency supplies than they will ever use. Do we really want to exile all of the people who make it possible for us to have such great stuff?”

“Yes! Yes!” chanted the nobles. “Out them, out them, one and all. Then we’ll build a giant wall!”

“Let me think about it,” said the king.

The next group to come up with a plan was the priests.

“Destroy the grain,” they said. “The gods are punishing us because of our lack of faith. The peasants spend all their time in farming, and not enough in prayer. The gods will send grain for the faithful. And the others don’t deserve any.”

“Refresh my memory,” said the king. “Which god is it that’s in charge of grain production?”

“We can’t believe you asked that,” gasped the priests. “Clearly You Are Not Like Us. Anyone who is faithful knows who’s in charge of grain.” And they started a rumor that the king was a heretic, and should be forced to abdicate.

The admirals were the next with an idea. “Having the ice break is a good thing,” they said. “The castle and the grain stores and most of the peasants will slide into the fathomless depths. We’ll be fine. We have boats. And they congratulated each other on having had the foresight to become admirals in what had seemed to be a landlocked kingdom.

Last of all the to come up with an idea were the peasants. “What if we lightened the castle by removing the game room, and the some of the courtiers’ catamites and mistresses? And what if we took the gold and distributed it to the peasants, who could spend it for grain, and wood for home repair projects, and stock to improve their herds, and education for their children, and maybe even to buy a little extra grain to lay by for emergencies and old age? And then we could reduce the size of the treasury. This would spread the weight of the grain, help the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, to be healthier since without the excess grain they would lose flesh, and everyone would be better off.” The king never got to hear their plan, because in order to reach the throne room they had to gain the approval of the biggest, fattest courtier of them all. When he heard the peasants’ plan he sneered, “I worked hard for the grain I have. Why should I have to give it to you for free? If you’d just work hard like I do you could have more grain, too.” And then he told them that their plan was childish, and unfeasible, and that it would never get the votes to pass, and that though the king might actually consider it the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles helping him rule would surely know better.

And so it was that the king, the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, discussed the grave problem facing their kingdom, and at last, after hearing everyone out and carefully considering the needs of the whole kingdom, the king decided on a plan.

“Here is what we will do,” he said. “We will sell most of the grain stores to the captains of industry, and tear down the buildings that housed them. We will give some boards to the admirals so they build nicer boats. We will deport as many of the people who were not born here as we can. And then we will give a little bit of the remaining grain to the peasants, so that we lighten the weight of the castle for all of us. We’ll keep the game room, of course, but we’ll divide the national treasury among the captains of industry, so they may start more industries, and amass more wealth, and therefore hire more peasants, and in that way the wealth will Trickle Down.

“I object,” said the fattest courtier. “If we give any grain to the peasants we won’t have any emergency supplies at all. And besides, they might get the idea that they deserve to benefit from the grain they send to us. Next thing you know we’d have a nation of peasants depending on castle grain. No one would farm, and the grain god would forsake us utterly.”

“So what do you suggest?” asked the king.

“I suggest that remove both legs from all the peasants,” said the fattest courtier. “That’ll teach them to comment on their betters’ weight.”

“What?” asked the king. “Why should the peasants have to lose their legs? How will they farm without them? What would that solve?”

“Never mind,” said the courtier. “But I won’t vote for any plan that requires courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles to starve while we give free grain to layabout peasants. That’s just not right. I don’t think it’s too much to ask the peasants to sacrifice a little.”

The king and his courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, talked long into the night, and at last, in the morning, they came out of the castle and told the peasants the king’s amended plan.

The grain stores would be divided among the captains of industry, the admirals, and the nobles, who would Hold Them In Trust until time of famine, at which time they would sell them back to the peasants at whatever price they chose. The admirals would build more boats to hold the peasants, or else they would use the grain and wood resources to improve their own boats, no one was really sure which, since the admirals got all huffy when the king tried to ask. The priests would devise a set of guidelines for determining who was contributing to the grain god’s happiness, and who was making him angry, and then they would work with the admirals in deporting all heretical peasants. And, as a special concession by the fattest courtier, peasants would only be required to sacrifice one arm and one leg, rather than both legs, so they might better fulfill their personal and civic responsibilities, and be a part of the Grain-Producing Base, and help Rebuild the National Stores of Grain, and have Self-Respect, and a Sense of Worth. And the fattest courtier stipulated that the arms and legs should be returned to the castle and turned into a new and interesting line of Pies, Casseroles, Roasts, Mixed Grills, Soups, and Garnishes, and thereby contribute New Industry, and Free Trade, and Realize Financial Efficiences in the Kitchen.

Some of the peasants asked why they had to sacrifice any limbs at all. The king repeated the fattest courtier’s line about Shared Sacrifice. Some spoke of storming the castle, and taking the grain by force, and knocking down the game room, breaking open the national treasury and sending the gold to peasants farm and wide, and saving the kingdom by evening out the weight on the ice sheet, but the priests counseled against it. “This is too big a problem for any of us to solve,” they said. “Let us hold a big prayer meeting, and as the gods to solve this problem for us.”

When some of the peasants persisted the priests reported them for Terrorist Leanings, and spoke of how the grain god was best served by submitting to the king’s laws, and then the priests reported the angry peasants to the fattest courtier as special cases who should have both legs removed, just in case.

And the next day the castle physicians went out unto all parts of the kingdom to enact the king’s plan for saving the kingdom, and in the end it worked, for a while. The ice sheet did not crack, for a while. The king and the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, continued to live happily in the castle. They dined nightly on the new range of Food Products that the fattest courtier had devised. As a result of their missing limbs and the depleted grain stores many peasants either died of infection or starved to death, thus lightening the weight on the ice sheet.

And if some of the remaining peasants wished that things had turned out differently, they learned to take comfort in the words of their priests, who explained that trials are sent to test us, and that if they were faithful the grain god, whoever he might be, would surely bless them as he had blessed the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles.

And then one morning the sun rose, and shone down not on a beautiful castle on a sheet of ice, but on a great black hole in the ice, and around it lay a wasteland.

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“There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” my dad used to tell us. What he meant was just that the absence of a jack was no excuse for not changing a flat tire. “Look around you,” he’d say impatiently. “If you don’t have the right tool for the job, figure it out. There’s always stuff in the back of the truck, and lying on the ground.”

I got to be very, very good at building tools out of rocks, old railroad ties, and baling twine. It’s a strange skill, but there it is. I have a knack for seeing relationships that aren’t always immediately apparent.

I like to think of it as having a touch of the metaphysical poets. My Romantic English Literature professor put it another way. “Boy, do you ever have a vivid imagination,” he said.  I still got an “A”, though, so that was all right.

But even my metaphysical brain didn’t expect to find common threads running through books as seemingly diverse as Brenda Peterson’s memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here On Earth, and Marian Allen’s fantasy, Eel’s Reverence. It wasn’t until I was actually writing the reviews for the two books that I found myself saying, “Hey…”. And then I started looking. And there they were–a lot of them, actually, far too many to discuss here.

The most striking, of course, is the examination each offers into the knotty subject of personal spirituality versus organized religion.  Readers who haven’t been following the discussion can catch up if they wish; just go back to Marian Allen’s interview, and read forward.

The central conflict in Allen’s book grows out of that very issue; Aunt Libby, a “true” priestess advocating a personal spiritual experience stripped of the trappings of religion, finds herself squared off against not the “reaver” priests, who offer a turnkey approach to soul maintenance and seem to operate more or less peaceably with the “true” priests, but a corrupt coalition of priests set on destroying all other spiritual options, and garnering all temporal and spiritual powers for themselves. Peterson’s memoir explores the same issue from another angle–she describes growing up a mystic in a family of Southern Baptists.

What strikes me most about the two books, though, is not that they both explore the relationship between religion, spirituality and power–after all, tthe question is the subject of constant debate these days. What I find most amazing is that both writers seem to find a system that gives power to neither path, but permits both, to be the uneasy solution.

Eel’s Reverence doesn’t conclude with a triumphant Aunt Libby trouncing her foes the reaver priests, but with an agreement that ensures people are offered both spiritual options–an agreement that allows for cooperation, conversation–and possibly conversion. Likewise, Peterson concludes her book by tracing her own family’s steps toward not agreement, but toward the sort of conversation that includes listening as well as speaking, that seeks to understand, rather than convince.

She includes a quote by Rumi, a 13th-century Afghani mystic poet:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

And perhaps that is the most striking thing of all–neither author sees resolution in the triumph of “right” over “wrong,” but in a world where  there is room for choice: one in which there are indeed many ways to skin a cat. Allen and Peterson may have traveled vastly different routes, but they have both found their way to the field beyond.

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