Every day we are confronted with choices, big and small. I’ve made a lot of choices in almost 55 years. A few were pretty darn good. Most were pretty ho-hum and I gave little thought to them and I often wonder if some of those were huge mistakes after all. Some choices were pretty clearly huge mistakes. Clearly huge.
Choices between two or more options. Choices for good or ill. Choices for yourself and/or others. How does one make truly difficult choices?
In the Peter Straub novel, “Shadowland” the antagonist, an aging magician tells a story to the boy he hopes will be his successor. It is a fable as to why frogs jump and croak. The gist of the story is that sparrows of a kingdom make a deal with a wizard to save a sleeping princess and the rest of the kingdom. The wizard exacts a trade from the sparrows to save the princess. He offers them the choice of their wings or their song. After discussion, the sparrows offer up their song.
When the wizard fulfills his end of the bargain, and the sparrows see the princess and the people of the kingdom begin to awaken, the sparrows change into frogs. Clearly, the wizard has tricked them. Perhaps. The author seems to suggest this. It seems to me though, that without their song, the sparrows have lost the one thing that is at the core of their identity that sets them apart.
The magician stood, put his hands in the small of his back, and stretched from the balls of his feet. “Think about one thing, Tom. What would you give to save a life? Your wings, or your song? Would you be a sparrow…or a frog?”
Loss of one’s wings. Perhaps making this choice does little more than nail you down where you are at in life. Or perhaps nails you to a personal cross. It’s kind of hard to know. Giving up your song may or may not be worse. It seems to me that the choices frame nicely as a choice between your freedom and your passion. Choose one.
Aren’t these two things inextricably tied together? Can you give up your freedom and still have your song or passion? I keep thinking you can’t. The sparrows were going to become frogs either way (after all, you can’t really trust wizards, they are subtle and quick to anger). Such choices are a bum deal. But we make them all the time.
I consider choices ahead of me. Will I choose my wings, my song, or refuse the deal? If it comes down to choices, I do know this, I will always consider the Badger’s question in “The Once and Future King” by T. H. White.
“He would go to war, if King Uther declared one. Do you know that Homo sapiens is almost
the only animal which wages war?”
“Don’t say ‘Ants do’ in that sweeping way, dear boy. There are more than four thousand
different sorts of them, and from all those kinds I can only think of five which are belligerent.
There are the five ants, one termite that I know of, and Man.”
“But the packs of wolves from the Forest Sauvage attack our flocks of sheep every winter.”
“Wolves and sheep belong to different species, my friend. True warfare is what happens
between bands of the same species. Out of the hundreds of thousands of species, I can only
think of seven which are belligerent. Even Man has a few varieties like the Esquimaux and
the Gypsies and the Lapps and certain Nomads in Arabia, who do not do it, because they do
not claim boundaries. True warfare is rarer in Nature than cannibalism. Don’t you think that is
a little unfortunate?”
“Personally,” said the Wart, “I should have liked to go to war, if I could have been made a
knight. I should have liked the banners and the trumpets, the flashing armour and the glorious
charges. And oh, I should have liked to do great deeds, and be brave, and conquer my own
fears. Don’t you have courage in warfare, Badger, and endurance, and comrades whom you
The learned animal thought for a long time, gazing into the fire.
In the end, he seemed to change the subject.
“Which did you like best,” he asked, “the ants or the wild geese?”
“But don’t they fight each other for the pasture?” (Wart asked Lyo-lyok, the wild goose.)
“Dear me, you are a silly,” she said. “There are no boundaries among the geese.”
“What are boundaries, please?”
“Imaginary lines on the earth, I suppose. How can you have boundaries if you fly? THose ants of yours – and the humans too- would have to fighting in the en, if they took to the air.”
“I like fighting,” said the Wart. “It is knightly.”
“Because you’re a baby.”
I’m old, not a baby. I don’t want to be with the ants, but with the geese.