Another story about the courage to ask for help comes to us from India, and is another Jataka tale. This is a story that that acclaimed storyteller, Rafe Martin, has retold in a number of books, and it is called, The Brave Little Parrot.
In this story, a parrot sees a fire break out in the forest. She begins to fly to safety, but then realizes that the other animals will not be able to flee unless they are warned. The parrot flies around, screeching the alarm, but it’s not enough. In desperation, she flies to the river and soaks her feathers in water. Then, returning to the fire, she sprinkles water on the flames – psst psst psst – but the droplets are futile to quench this blaze. Yet again and again the parrot returns to the river, soaks her feathers, and flies back to do her best. She is choking on smoke, and her feathers are becoming singed. She cannot keep this up much longer.
Up above, the gods are watching with some amusement. What a foolish bird! they laugh. She really thinks she can put out this raging fire? One of them comes down in the shape of an eagle and approaches the bird, saying, This is a futile errand, silly parrot! Fly away and save your life while you still can.
Still shaking water from her feathers in her valiant attempt to put out the fire, the parrot screeches at the god, I don’t need your advice, I NEED YOUR HELP!
Humbled, the eagle cries with remorse and pity; the god’s tears rain down onto the forest fire, putting it out at last.
What I love about this story is how easy it is for me to recognize the patronizing smugness of the god in myself, and the courage and determination of the parrot in my daughter. So often our kids throw themselves heart and soul into a project that has no meaning – or no meaning that we adults can see – or into a project that is doomed to failure. Our logical, adult brains see what lies ahead (the tide is coming in, the inflexible laws of physics are against us, the baby bird is too young to survive out of the nest etc.) I don’t think that will work, we say, as if offering permission to lay down a burden, and also trying to fend off the disappointment that will surely come. We lower the cone of protection, as if that will magically keep failure away. Somehow we overlook that by making perseverance a virtue only for the tasks that seem important to us, we risk making it unimportant for our kids. Emotional courage prepares us for disappointments, however, and helps us to acknowledge them as part of the full spectrum of emotions. Without the opportunity to experience disappointment and defeat, how can we hope to build our emotional courage muscles?
Besides, there is dignity in defeat if you have given your best. If you know that you have done everything in your power, then although there is sure to be disappointment or even grief, there can be no regret. There is a line in the movie, “The Last of the Mohicans,” that I have never forgotten (and it might be in the book, too, but I never could get through it). When the British finally surrender their fort after a brutal and lengthy siege, the French general says to Colonel Munro, “You have done all that is required for the honor of your prince.”
“All that is required,” and “everything in our power” is what courage allows us to try. Sometimes “everything” includes calling for help. Our own emotional courage is put to the test when we are willing to answer that call and fight the incoming tide arm in arm with our child, knowing that we will lose.