How many times have you seen a movie or listened to a story where a person has an angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other? This example is classic because it’s universal to us all. At any given time, on any given day, we have either the voice of our higher more compassionate self who is whispering in our ear—or we have that part of us that is most selfish, small-minded and paranoid sitting on the other. The image of two little selves fighting for our attention is one that is graphically easy to remember. Which do you listen to the most?
Several years ago, I also heard another way to describe the same struggle. This example suggests that on one shoulder you carry a bucket of fuel, and on the other, you carry a bucket of water. Everywhere you go, and with every encounter, you are either dumping your bucket of water on the situation or your bucket of fuel. The water naturally nourishes and refreshes while the fuel tends to kill or deaden the state of affairs. Making matters worse, if there are flames present, the fuel feeds the fire, which then grows and destroys everything in its path. In contrast, the water soothes any flame and cools the situation.
But there’s another story I prefer even more to help me choose what I will listen to, and where I put my attention. It is the story of a young Native American who would daily visit his grandfather in the evening after dinner. Grandson would sit on Grandfather’s lap and Grandfather would quietly ask, “So my young son, what happened in your life today?” Each day, Grandson would describe the events that had touched his life.
One day Grandson approached Grandfather with a scowl and rutted brow.
“Come sit,” commanded Grandfather. “Tell me what has happened today.”
Rigidly, the child climbed onto the lap and then seemed to melt against the warmth he found there. Looking up into the wrinkled, nut-brown face of his grandfather, his anger dissolved into eyes that pooled with tears.
After a time the boy said, “I went into town today to help mother collect supplies. I like to go, I like to help. I also thought I’d be able to buy something at the store I’ve been wanting for a long time.” Grandson swallowed and looked out over the porch before going on.
“It was fun to be in town. There were lots of people and lots going on. Then mother and I went into the hardware store and I found just what I was looking for—a small pocketknife. It was just what I wanted—and best of all, Mother bought it for me!” Grandson’s momentary elation deflated as he leaned back and laid his head against Grandfathers chest.
After a time, Grandfather lifted his hand and gently stroked the boy’s raven hair. “And then what happened?”
“I went outside to wait for mother and to play with my new knife. Then some boys came down the sidewalk, and when they saw me and my knife they surrounded me and started saying mean things.”
“They called me dirty and stupid and a bunch of other stuff I didn’t understand. Then, one of them told me I didn’t deserve such a fine knife and he pushed me. I fell and dropped my knife and before I knew it one of them grabbed it and they all ran off.”
Suddenly the grandson’s body went from soft to rigid again in the arms of his grandfather. “I hate those boys! I hate them all.”
Grandfather said nothing for some time as he rocked the boy on his lap. He stared out in front of them both, obviously reliving his own past. Eventually he said, “Let me tell you a story, my grandson. There have been many times in my life when I, too have felt a great fear and hatred for those who have taken so much, with no sorrow or remorse for what they do. However, at one point I began to notice that the fear and hate was only hurting me, and did nothing to the others. It is much like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. “ Grandfather paused and let his words sink into Grandson’s ears.
“One day I started to think about it in another way. I imagined that there were two wolves inside me–one light and one dark. The light wolf is all that is good and does no harm. He lives in peace with everything around him and never takes offense when none was meant. Wherever he goes and whatever he does, his mission is to sow peace and harmony. His goal is to love no matter what.”
But the other wolf within me is very different. He is full of anger and the littlest thing will set him into a rage. He believes the world is a lonely and fearful place and that everyone is his enemy. His fear and anger are so great he cannot think or act with kindness. Wherever he goes and whatever he does, he creates unhappiness and pain. Nothing good comes out of his life.”
Grandfather stroked his grandson’s hair once again and gently tilted up his chin and looked into his eyes. “Sometimes it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me Grandson, for both compete to win my spirit every single day.”
“But which one wins, Grandfather?”
Nodding, Grandfather smiled and said simply, “The one I feed—always wins.”
Ultimately, the choice of which voice—angel or devil; or which bucket—water or fuel, comes down to which one we feed most regularly. What we focus on grows. What we think about, we bring about. If we spend a lot of time encouraging our “little devil”, why would our little angel be the easy choice when faced with a decision? If we indiscriminately dump our fuel every chance we get, we just might discover there is little or no water available when needed. Likewise, if we want to experience the peace and happiness that comes from a benevolent wolf, then we best feed it regularly with uplifting words, loving kindness, peaceful awareness, inspiring hope, and a positive outlook. After all, like Grandfather says, the voice inside us that we regularly feed—always wins.
“There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening, we shall hear the right word. Certainly, there is a right for you that needs no choice on your part. Place yourself in the middle of the stream of power and wisdom which flows into your life. Then, without effort, you are impelled to truth and to perfect contentment.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.”–Jerry Garcia
Photo by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/niclindh