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  • Writer's pictureNancy Willbern, PhD

The Impossible Task

          Poor Cinderella. She ran to the garden behind the house. And there she sank down on a low stone bench and wept as if her heart would break. But soon she felt someone beside her. She looked up, and through her tears she saw a sweet-faced little woman. "Oh," said Cinderella. "Good Evening. Who are you?"

"I am your fairy godmother," said the little woman. And from the thin air she pulled a magic wand. "Now dry your tears. You can't go to the ball looking like that!"     

Walt Disney's Cinderella, Golden Press, 1950

          Fairy tales live for centuries, not because they are true, but because they carry archetypal truths about the human experience. For example, they invariably begin with orphaned children -- children who have either literally lost one or both parents, have been emotionally abandoned or have parents who want to kill them or keep them captive. Scary!

          Think about it – Cinderella, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel. This is because all human beings have experienced some degree of abandonment, enmeshment, neglect or abuse. Some worse than others, for sure, but most of us can feel that twinge in the stomach when we recall feeling alone, ignored, judged, scared or not loved quite enough, feeling less than or the opposite, too much of something. In other words, we all know what it feels like to not be fully accepted just as we were. Fairy Tales start there and tell it like it is.

          They are also explicit with another all too human experience – the moment when the hero or heroine of the story is met with an impossible task – “Spin the straw into gold before morning or you will be killed.” … “Take her out into the woods, kill her and bring me her heart!”… “Sort the grains of sand from the poppy seeds by morning.” Or, as in the story of Cinderella who, with invitation in hand, no matter how hard she tried could not get herself to The Ball. In these moments, the protagonist tries and tries and tries to complete the task but is literally incapable and eventually moves into exhaustion and despair. And it is right there, when the struggle is given up that a friendly animal creature, an elf or some other-worldly-being comes in to save the day. An animal, like the ants that come in to sort the poppy seeds from the grains of sand represents the instinctual self. And the otherworldly being , like the Fairy God Mother in the tale of Cinderella represents deep intuition or some form of Divine Presence.

          Although fairy tales can be really scary, filled with demons and dragons, devouring witches or trolls, their basic message is one of hope. The orphaned children always get saved and find they are not really all alone, after all. Someone or something always comes in to scoop them out of harm’s way or take them to the bounty. The point I am trying to make here is not that we will all eventually live happily ever after or all of our daily problems or ills will magically be poofed away. But what I am saying is that whenever we find ourselves, which all of us do, facing an impenetrable dead end, an unsolvable problem – being diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness, being in relationship with an active addict, living in a dysfunctional marriage but too afraid to leave, continuing to live out of a fear-based part of the self in spite of all the psychological or spiritual work we have done – there is always more than we can see, more than our problem-solving minds, our personal strength of will can come up with.

          There really are unpredictable powers that are ready to come to our aid. So, next time, after repeatedly struggling to find our way out, we can just slide down, put our backs against the wall, sit down and be still. We can stop our getting-nowhere-effort-ing, fully admit that we really don’t see any solution and call upon Unseen Grace to show us the way.

          Fairy tales aren’t just stories for children. They carry powerful Universal Truths about what it means to be human. They expose the ubiquity of human futility, as well as the freedom that comes through unimagined providence.


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