of generals and butterflies

I’ve mentioned before how much I love children’s literature and the truth seen in its simplicity.  I first read The Little Prince in 1988, and this beautiful story of the young boy, traveling among the stars in search for meaning apart from his friend, the beautiful but conceited flower that resided on his planet.  As the boy stopped at resident planets, one character he met was a king, a king who said he ruled the entire universe. 

The perspective of the “king” may have been a bit stinted, but he did have some real wisdom, seen in an exchange he had with the little prince: “If I ordered a general to fly from one flower to another like a butterfly, or to write a tragic drama, or to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not carry out the order that he had received, which one of us would be in the wrong?” the king demanded.  “The general, or myself?”
“You,” said the little prince firmly.
“Exactly.  One must require from each one the duty which each one can perform.”
(p. 38)

The king may have been egotistical, but he knew that he could only command the sun to set when the time was right (though the prince would have liked to see more sunsets), just like he couldn’t command a general to fly.  I think this is a good lesson for us: expectations need to be realistic, at least within the realm of possibility. 

On the other hand, there is a danger of underestimating possibilities, particularly when you have struggles in life and don’t see yourself surmounting them.  This makes me think of something written by Henry David Thoreau over 150 years ago: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

I have another thought from The Little Prince, one shared by his flower friend before the prince left on his journey: “Well, I must endure the presence of two or three caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.” (p. 34)  Though the flower and king never came in contact with one another, they both shared good lessons: a general cannot be commanded to become a butterfly, but seeing the beautiful butterflies of life can require dealing with pesky caterpillars.  I remember watching as the foundation of our house was built – it wasn’t simple, but it was thorough and strong.  And necessary.

After rereading The Little Prince, I find myself wondering, am I wishing for sunsets at the wrong time of day?  (Am I expecting a general to pollinate my flowers?)  Or as Thoreau writes, do I have castles that need acknowledged and rooted on a foundation? 

This makes me think of a friend who recently shared the story of his MS diagnosis seven years ago.  He had closed himself in his apartment, pulled down the blinds and planned to stay there, depressed and convinced that life was finished, there was no hope for his future.  And a nurse (and valuable friend) lifted the blinds, informing my friend that she would pull the blinds off the wall if he’d insist on blocking light from his life.  Today, my friend is halfway through his college work, working toward a Bachelor’s degree he never had.  And despite physical limitations, my friend has determined that he will not just complete his degree, but find a way he can use this education… and he is still building those foundations.

My friend isn’t planning to enter the Olympics or win an Emmy, as he’s not an athlete or actor, but he has goals that are within the realm of possibility.  Those “caterpillars” did indeed enter his life in the form of multiple sclerosis, but I look forward to seeing the butterfly when my friend graduates from college in less than two years.

As you can see, it’s dangerous to give me a children’s book… I find too many lessons in them.  I love these lessons, though, and continue to look for ways that life and literature can teach us in simple, profound, childlike ways.   If you have a favorite lesson from a treasured book, please share – I’d love to hear about it!

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2 Comments

  1. Serena said,

    October 8, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    I love that Thoreau quote! In fact, it was in my OI speech senior year. 🙂

  2. Angie said,

    October 8, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Actually, that also was one of the main lines I had in my senior play, “Up the Down Staircase” – I was a high school English teacher, and I remember her sharing this line with her students. Then in college, I was in “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” – this wasn’t a line in the play, but at least I learned to spell his name! 🙂 (and I only had four lines, so not a big deal – but Ollie directed, so it was a wonderful experience, of course.)


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