Stories From the Road
The Foolish Man
There was a poor man who lived at the edge of the town in a house of old bricks, with poor fitting windows and a rusty steel roof. In summer his house was very hot and in winter it was cold, when it rained the roof leaked. The man felt he never seemed to have any luck, he had stopped taking pride in his appearance and his hair was unkempt and his clothes ragged. He had just enough land to grow enough food to feed himself. The man had tried to find work but one way or another the jobs finished and he felt he was never further ahead, it seemed the more he worked the less he had to show for it. His wife had died after their first year of marriage and he was childless. And though he would have liked to marry again he thought he had nothing to offer prospective brides.
One day he resolved to go and find God and tell him of the unfairness of his life and ask God to grant him a favor. So he set off into the forest in search of God.
On his way he met an old grey wolf, so thin its ribs showed clearly. The wolf growled and asked the man where he was going.
“I am going in search of God” said the man “ To tell him of my trials and sufferings. “
“Well” said the wolf, “ Since you are going to find God, when you see him will you please tell him there is a wolf roaming in the forest who cannot find food and is hungry day and night. As God created me please ask God to feed me.”
The man committed to tell God about the wolf and continued on his journey.
Not long after the man met a pretty young woman collecting small wild flowers in the forest.
“Where are you going” she asked the man.
“I am going in search of God to ask him to help me.”
“Then” said the young woman, “Please tell God there is a pretty young woman, healthy and rich who is not happy. Please ask God to help her.”
The man committed to tell God about her and continued on his way.
After some time the man came to a tree on a dry bank beneath which was a flowing stream. The man sat in the shade of the tree to rest as he had been travelling all morning.
The tree spoke to the man saying “Traveler where are you going?”
“I am going in search of God” said the man “I am going to ask him for help”
“Well” said the tree “ if you are going to ask God for help, please ask him to help me also, please tell God there is a dried up tree on a bank whose roots cannot reach the stream below and it is dry on the bank all year round. Please ask God to send some water so that I may become green again.
The man promised to tell God of the tree’s plight and continued on his way.
Eventually the man found God manifesting in the form of an elderly man with a long white beard sitting in the shade of a high rocky outcrop.
“Lord” Said the man, “I have come in search of you.”
“You are welcome”, said God, “What can I do for you?”
The man said, “Life is not fair and I want you to be fair to everyone, I work twice as hard as many I know yet they are rich and live well and I am poor, lonely, often hungry and unhappy.”
God though for a moment and then said, “Please go now and you will be rich, I grant you luck, go find it and enjoy it”
“I have something else to tell you Lord” said the man, and he told God of the troubles of the hungry wolf, the pretty young woman and the dried up tree.
God promised he had help for them all and told the man what he must do. The man thanked God and began his journey back, almost at a run to begin his new life as a rich man.
On his way back he came to the tree.
“What is Gods message to me?” said the tree
“God told me that you have a pot of gold buried beneath your roots and once it is dug out then your roots will become free and you will be green again.”
“Wonderful” said the tree, “then you are just the man to dig out the gold, you can keep it for yourself and then I will be green again.”
“No” said the man “I have no time now, I am in a hurry, God has given me my luck and I must now go and find it so that I can have a happy life.”
And the man rushed off and almost ran into the pretty young woman who had been waiting for him.
“Sir what is God’s word for me? How will I ever be happy?”
“God told me that you must find a precious friend for yourself and then you won’t be sad anymore and your life will be joyful and you will be happy,” said the man
The young woman gazed openly and directly to deeply into the man’s eyes and had he looked he would have seen her tender heart, “Please! Will you be my precious friend?” asked the young woman with much feeling.
But the man averted his eyes “No, I have no time to be your friend” said the man, “ God has given me my luck and I must go and find it and enjoy it”. As he said these words the man was already leaving at a half-run rushing off up the path.
The man had not gone far when the hungry wolf ran toward him on the path.
“Traveller, does God have a message for me?” said the wolf
The man told the wolf that God had told him that the wolf would go hungry until he found a foolish man. And when he found one he should eat him immediately and he would be satisfied.
Then the wolf said “Where on earth am l likely to fine a man as foolish as you?” and with that he ate the man and was satisfied.
(This is a retelling of the story “The Foolish Man” by the famous Armenian poet and writer Hovhannes Tumanyan 1869 -1923)
I have used this story in a variety of forms in communities who are poor as well as with staff working in those communities, to create a discussion about what as a community we have now and what we think is missing.
Firstly of course, is that we have the eyes to see, that there are people and opportunities around us that we can work with to improve our condition.
If we are waiting on Government, NGO’s., Head Office or others to change our luck, the likelihood is that we will be missing those opportunities that can be grasped in the present. This is obviously the basis of a “Strengths Based” approach or sometimes we call it ‘Appreciative Inquiry’.
I often talk about what I see as the three elements of action for change. There is “I” and what I can do, there is “we” or “us” and what we can do together and there are “others” such as key persons, institutions and/or NGOs who we can approach and discuss mutual interests. The “I”, “we” and “other” dimensions align with the dimensions of our worldviews: egocentric, socio-centric, and world-centric. These dimensions relate as much to the way the staff of NGOs see the communities they are working in as they do within communities themselves. In the story of “The Foolish Man”, the poor man misses the opportunities around him not only for wealth, but for love and happiness. It is easy for us to miss the point that it is likely through our interactions with others and benefiting them as well that we ourselves can find what we are looking for or what is promised to us. It is also the case that if we don’t have a flexible mindset that our own tight focus will also keep us from the opportunity to unlock the power and love in others, just as the story’s foolish man demonstrates.
I have found that more likely than not, the best outcomes appear in unexpected quarters and our role, as facilitators of change, is to be mindful enough to notice them and by recognizing them to make them real in a new way. We may have a focus on value chains or small business development however we are wise not to overlook the pride of a man saying, “Before I began working for my community based organization I was just a poor man, now I am helping change lives, my life is meaningful and I am respected.” Or the group that sends two representatives to local Government meetings to voice their community’s need for roads and water who say, “Before we were part of our committee we would never have dared to come to these meetings and speak for our community”. And this mindfulness is also what the man in the story lacked. In his very focused quest for results he ignored the wider picture and missed everything that he had hoped to gain. This not only kept him in the “individual – I” state, but it meant that others also could not fulfill their opportunities through his agency. And predictably he died as a result, as often does the hope in individuals and community groups or in our own staff. These issues of focus, unfulfilled possibility and death relate just as much to well-meaning programs as they relate to individuals. A program design can have a narrow view of success and staff can sometimes be so focused on achieving the aim of the program that they not only miss opportunities for transformation but do damage to others as did the foolish man. Inflexibility or inert program designs or logframes can also encourage a narrow focus or mean that we do not have a broad enough perspective on what we measure as beneficial change.
I have found the I, We and They (or the Other) perspectives very useful in focusing staff groups and communities on what can be done. It also helps focus on the short medium and longer term nature of opportunities.
I always start off with “what can individuals do?” and then move to the group. Only then do we discuss how individuals and or the group can engage with “others”. Invariably if the group begins talking about its collective neediness, what they think needs to be done, most actions tend to end up as the responsibility of the “other”.
Another extension of how worldviews can fundamentally change a situation, are the perspectives of first, second and third person. The foolish man is stuck in the first person world view and his interactions with the other players in the story don’t move him to include them. A second person perspective would open up his view to consider me and you, the man and the maiden, or the man and the tree, for example and what they can do together for mutual benefit. A third person perspective would be the “view from the balcony” where the man can potentially see himself as part of a design and his place in a broader system and see how he can potentially work differently as part of a bigger picture of potency and opportunity.
There is always a wolf ready to pounce on the foolish. The man had the opportunity to avoid the wolf with riches and a new wife and bring new life to a tree and its sustainability for generations. Who knows he may even have been able to feed the wolf.
God in this story has effectively told the man, that if he doesn’t change his perspective the wolf will eat him, the man actually gives the wolf this message himself. Thus it is really only a change in worldviews that would allow the man, or individuals in a community to “keep the wolf from the door.” Not to change is not a viable option as it makes us, as communities or development professionals vulnerable to the hazards that are always present.
Often the place of God and divine intervention comes up and my response is to acknowledge God as the fundamental giver and to say that what he has indisputably given us at this time is ourselves, each other and organizations and institutions we can share our interests and messages with.
Jock Noble November 2013,
Jock Noble is the Lead or World Visions Economic Development Learning Hub for the Middle East and Eastern Europe. After a career of trying to teach turtles to fly he finally got into the water and is learning to swim with them.