Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: Hasidism

The Prince and the Rooster

Once, in an ancient kingdom, there lived a fine and handsome and intelligent prince. But one day he got it into his head that he was a rooster. At first the king believed this was simply a passing thought, a phase his son was going through. But when the prince took off all his clothes and began flapping his arms and crowing like a rooster, the king knew he had a real problem. The prince took up residence under the dining-room table and would eat only kernels of corn dropped onto the royal carpet. The king was sad to see his son in such a state. He called in his best doctors, his miracle workers, his magicians. One by one they talked to the prince, tried medicine and magic. But he remained convinced that he was a rooster. One by one they filed out.

Each time, the rooster crowed. The king fell into a deep depression, convinced that no one could cure his son of his tragic malady. He told his servants to allow no more medicine men or fortune seekers into the palace. He had had enough. One day an unknown sage approached the palace and loudly knocked upon the palace gate. The king’s chief servant cracked open the wooden door and saw an old man with piercing eyes staring at him. “I understand the king’s son believes he is a rooster. Well, I am here to convince him otherwise.” The servant slammed the large wooden door. “So many have tried and failed. Go away, old man!” The next day, the servant heard once again a loud knock upon the gate. Again he cracked open the door. “I have a message for the king,” said the unknown sage. “What is it?” said the servant. “Give it and be gone.” “Tell the king these words exactly: ‘To pull a man out of the mud, sometimes a friend must set foot into that mud.’ The servant had no idea what it meant, but he left the sage waiting outside the gate and took the message to the king.

Slumped on his throne, the king listened to the cryptic message. “To pull a man out of the mud, a friend must set foot into that mud.” Hmm, what did he mean by that? But as he thought about it, the words began to make sense. He sat straight up and said, “Yes, bring him in. I will give him a chance!”

To everyone’s amazement, the wise man began by taking off all his clothes. The king shook his head. Now there were two naked men under the dining-room table, crowing like roosters. Soon the prince said to the wise man, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” “Can’t you see?” said the sage. “I’m a rooster, just like you.” The prince was happy to have found a friend, and the palace resounded with flapping and crowing. But the next day, the wise man got out from under the table, straightened his back, and stretched. “What? What are you doing?” asked the prince. “Not to worry,” said the sage. “Just because you are a rooster doesn’t mean you have to live under a table.” The prince admired his friend, so he tried it. It was true. A rooster can stand and stretch, and still be a rooster. The next day, the sage actually put on a shirt and a pair of pants. “Have you lost your mind?” asked the prince. “I was a little chilly,” said the sage. “Besides, just because you are a rooster doesn’t mean that you can’t put on a man’s clothing. You still remain a rooster.”

Puzzled, the prince reluctantly tried on some clothes. The sage then asked for a meal to be served on the golden platters of the king. He sat down with the prince, and without realising it, the prince began to eat. The sage engaged him in a lively conversation about the affairs of the kingdom. Suddenly the prince jumped up from the table and cried, “Don’t you realise that we are roosters? How can we be sitting at this table eating and talking as if we were men?” “Aha!” cried the sage. “I will now tell you a great secret. You can dress like a man, eat like a man, and talk like a man, but still remain a rooster.” “Hmm,” said the prince. And from that day forward, he behaved just like a man. In a few years, he assumed the throne. He led his kingdom to great glory. But every once in a while, the thought occurred to him that he was, in fact, still a rooster-and when he was all alone he would crow a little bit, just to make sure.

Rabbi Nachman from Nina Jaffe & Steve Zeitlin (1993). While standing on one foot. Puzzle stories & wisdom tales from the Jewish tradition. NY: Henry Hot. 70-75. Prince Rooster

I first heard this story from that great promoter of Hasidic Wisdom, John O’Brien. This story also reminds me of the work of Womencentre in Halifax. What is magical about their work is the way in which each woman sees herself as working alongside the woman who is in need. And as an equal they can help, enable and challenge within a relationship based upon trust – focusing on the real issues facing the woman – not their labels or reputations.

The best support is always paradoxical in this way – it lifts people up as equals – not from above, not from below – but alongside.

Three (or Four) Kinds of People

Three officials were assigned to guard the king’s treasures. They proved to be corrupt, and dividing the valuables, ran away. One thought better of it, and returned of his own accord. The second was persuaded by a friend to return. The third witnessed the execution of an embezzler and returned out of fear. The first was restored to the king’s confidence; the second received a less responsible post, the third was appointed executioner of the embezzlers: 

“There are three kinds of people in the world who act like these three officials with respect to the fulfillment of God’s injunctions” explained the Pulnoer.

An Hasidic Tale

This story reveals a theme which runs through moral philosophy. Are we motivated to act rightly because of duty itself or because of external influence or fear?

In my own work I find the similar fourfold distinction useful – not for analysing moral behaviour – but in terms of attitude to change:

  1. Motivation by belief – to have a vision of the possible and faith in the unseen – these are the natural innovators
  2. Motivation by status – to seek evidence  and stay close to authority – these are the followers of fashion, the makers of movements
  3. Motivation by price – to look for the consequent value of the innovation: it makes life easier, cheaper, more fun – these are the utilitarians who wait for trends to be set and for prices to drop
  4. Motivation by fear – to know the negative value of the innovation: to fear the loss, the change and the unknown – these are the sceptics

Notice that each of us takes a different attitude to change in different aspects of our life. Nobody is an innovator in every walk of life. Notice also that each attitude has a positive purpose and that the tensions between these perspectives are legitimate.

So if you value an innovation remember that the other person, who does not seem to understand the value of the innovation, is not being purposefully stupid or wicked. Instead they are either:

  • Worrying that there is not enough evidence – What would it look like if they backed something that proved false?
  • Worrying that there is not enough value yet – Is it the right time to invest in this? What will my return be?
  • Worrying that they will lose something else they value –  Doesn’t this threaten me?

For social innovators it is important to respect these fears – knowing that you cannot resolve them at once. You also need to develop strategies that:

  • Increase data and improve understanding of the value of the innovation
  • Reduce the price, increase simplicity and ease of application of the innovation
  • Design the innovation so that it is sustainable and respectful of other values and approaches
Perhaps most importantly, if you have a vision of how things could be better, you will need to find ways of sharing your vision. Most powerfully this is achieved by making your vision real – even if its just in some small way.

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