Sara lives and works in the Elkhart/South Bend, IN area. She writes in response to the fairy tale The Elves and the Shoemaker
This cycle of campaigning, the election, and the inauguration has been a challenge for many, regardless of political leanings. The cynicism, attacks, and untruths in the election process, and autocratic manner in which many perceive the first days of the Trump administration to represent, have been very depressing for many and outright frightening for others. Many Americans felt the same fear when President Obama was elected. It is clear that a variety of groups of people are feeling dispossessed and ignored. In the midst of an energy that makes many I’ve talked with recently personally and professionally want to simply “tune out” on social media and news, what are we to do that makes a difference?
There are many answers to that question, but one I’d like to focus on involves, as always, our personal responsibility to ourselves and our inner work. We might also look at how the United States can look collectively at our maturity as a nation, and at a tendency to avoid the need to do the hard, adult work of democracy in disagreeing and talking and working it through (perhaps a need to find the transcendent function as a nation?). In order to frame this, I’d like to use the classic fairy tale The Elves and the Shoemaker. Assuming most of you know the story, I’ll just refer to a few of the details.
In this story, which Jungian analyst Allan Chinen refers to as a “midlife” story in his book Once Upon a Midlife (2003), the shoemaker and his wife have worked hard for a number of years but fallen on hard times. In come the elves, in the middle of the night, sliding in on a moonbeam, to bring the magic back to the couple by stitching up shoes for them, which sell for a good deal of money, allowing the couple to purchase more leather and so on. When the couple decides to watch one night and sees the naked, playful elves, they make clothing and boots for them, which delights the elves but also causes them never to come back. However, our couple continues their work and is successful through the rest of their lives.
As Chinen points out, one of the things that makes this story different from many fairy tales that include “lost” magical elements is that this couple is not being “punished” for being greedy or inappropriate – they are doing all the right things. When the magic of the elves leaves, they simply keep working and now incorporate this magic into their own skill and discipline, modeling the inevitable developmental task of “growing up” into the reality of work and persistence required for a successful life. Knowledge and consciousness in this story – like in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve leaving the garden – lead to more shoemaking and ongoing hard work. Also in this story, the shoes seem to represent a kind of groundedness – the shoes are not magical like in more youth-oriented fairy tales (e.g. Dorothy’s ruby slippers) – but seem to represent the solid responsibility of putting one foot in front of the other that we may learn in midlife and later years.
Of course, the elves could also represent dreams that come in the middle of the night, and help us determine creative solutions at any point in our lives. Maybe the shoemaker and his wife, having done the grind of responsibility for a number of years, needed to recall how to introduce the “magic” of the creativity found in the unconscious and to take the care to see the elves and pay attention to what they were doing. (Personally, my least favorite part of the story is clothing the elves – maybe sometimes we need to have fun and cavort in the unselfconscious nakedness of children’s play, even as mature adults, but we also have to acknowledge social conventions and be present in the real world!)
So our story may help us with our dilemma of what to do in these troubled times. It reminds us not only of our mature adult responsibility to keep working, to keep doing what we know is right and helps us be responsible citizens, and not expect “magic” to take care of things for us. It also reminds us to not neglect our creative life – to pay attention to our dreams and to use our active imagination – in the midst of our responsibility, and that perhaps some elven magic (even naked playfulness!) helps us balance some of the heaviness of responsibility and also come up with creative ways we can be active citizens, or resolve a conflict, or find ways to transcend our differences with friends, family, partners, and coworkers.
Chinen asks a series of provocative questions for discussion at the end of his chapter about The Elves and the Shoemaker. I’d like to end by quoting several of them below, from the community and national level of consciousness, for your own musing (Chinen, 2003, pp. 42-43):
- In your workplace or community, who are the helpful elves? . . . Who in your community wants to find out about these helpers? Who wants to just leave well enough alone?
- What gifts would these elves need to move on to better things?
- Would your group be willing to give those gifts and go back to doing more work? Why would your community want to help the elves – noble virtue, liberal’s guilt, fundamentalist morality?
- If the shoemaker were America, who are the elves who produce wonderful things for the country? . . . What would be involved in clothing these elves so they can move on?
Today, America relies on high-tech elves to solve problems, from pollution to AIDS and the war on terrorism. What would it mean for us to let those elves go on and do more work ourselves, not relying on their magic?