Reality Check: Fables and Values

What values guide your life? Where did your values come from?
When I refer to values, I’m thinking of qualities such as loyalty, trustworthiness, prudence, generosity, perseverance, compassion, respect, work. There are many more.
My curiosity about values was inspired by a recent conversation with a woman I’ll call Jo. She’d witnessed an acquaintance being unnecessarily rude to a stranger. Jo said, “You don’t treat people like that! At least, that’s not how I was brought up.”
I share Jo’s value of respectful treatment, whether it’s toward strangers, friends, the powerful or the powerless. But values-based choices aren’t always so cut and dried. Our values can sometimes lead to conflict, even within ourselves.
For example, if you value both loyalty and honesty, how do you choose when a friend asks you for a small dishonesty that would bring them a large benefit?
Questions of that sort reminded me of Aesop’s fables. Many are tales about values.
For example, the Tortoise and the Hare says slow and steady wins the race. It’s the value of perseverance.
The Ant and Grasshopper illustrates the value of putting off immediate gratification to prepare for the future. It’s a tale of working, planning ahead, acting prudently.
The Mouse and the Lion is a story of extending a kindness. The lion chose to let a mouse go free; the mouse later returned and saved the lion from a trap.
The Farmer and the Snake is a cautionary tale about those who would do you harm. It shows the folly of accepting the word of a fundamentally untrustworthy creature when they attempt to convince you otherwise.
Even seemingly straightforward fables like these can lead to contradictory interpretations.
On the one hand, the Mouse and Lion fable suggests that when we are kind, our kindness will be returned to us in future. Had the lion eaten the mouse, the mouse could not have returned to free him. Even then, the mouse didn’t know for sure that the lion wouldn’t eat him once freed from the trap. It was a leap of faith.
Now consider the farmer and the snake. The snake is frozen, soon to die. The farmer pities him, and based on the snake’s promise that he will bring no harm to the farmer, the farmer warms the snake. The snake, once recovered, promptly bites the farmer, who dies.
What does that tell us? A kindness is not necessarily repaid and not everyone is truthful.
So those two fables send contradictory messages, don’t they? One message: be kind and trusting and kindness will come. The other: be kind to the wrong creature, and death and destruction will come. Which is it then?
Dr. William Glasser says that we can give others information, but suggesting, “I know what’s best for you” can lead to conflict rather than help.
Aesop’s fables, like many stories, give information that can open our eyes to possibilities. When we have a real decision to make, it’s helpful to realize that there are potentially several ways of looking at the situation. Ultimately, it’s up to us to weigh the risks and benefits as we make our choices.
What influences have shaped your values? What would you recommend to others for guidance?

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