Is respect for a situation bound up with recognizing its – and our – limitations?
This question can be more complex than it appears at first glance.
Once we decide,
“I’m gonna hit that tree!”
It ceases to be an open question. We will hit that tree.
This isn’t “mind over matter” or “predestination.” We have stopped considering any alternatives. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to us that we have locked in on an outcome and are helping to bring it about.
Acknowledge a threat and then let it go enough to allow our attention to find and consider other options. Remaining transfixed on a threat shuts us down while giving us the illusion of prudence.
There’s a little village north of the Serra da Estrella in Portugal, in the valley of the Mondego.* The village was named after the Açores, after Ospreys living there and fishing in the river. A particular incident led to this commemoration of the Osprey, Os Açores.
During one of the many wars across this border-land the village was held under siege. A Spanish general surrounded the walled town and stopped all traffic in and out for close to a year.
The town had provisions to last through a long siege. It had a protected underground spring for water. But at this point, the burgher in charge of the supplies had to report to the council that all that remained was enough flour to bake a single loaf, and a small measure of olive oil.
Many on the council were in favor of surrendering. The forces arrayed about them were as strong as ever and showed no signs of weakened resolve. If they surrendered there might be leniency. At least so they wished to imagine. There had not been any such promise made.
At that moment an Açore swooped down and caught a fish in the river. Soaring above the town on its way to its nest the fish thrashed in its talons and fell at the feet of the council.
Everyone was eager to read an omen in this, but most were speechless. The burgher in charge of supplies was the first to check his enthusiasm. He knew first hand how depleted their stores were and how this one glorious glistening fresh fish changed nothing.
As he began to council reason one of the elders gently stopped him. When he had their attention he made this suggestion,
“Let us bake that last loaf of bread. Let us fry this fish in the last of the olive oil.”
At that, a few of the others, led by our knowing burgher, began to interrupt,
“What good will that do! It is but a morsel! Our needs are great and the siege is ongoing!”
The elder calmed them down with a look and a gesture. He went on,
“And then, let us take our strongest catapult and shoot the loaf and the fish over the walls directly at the Spanish general’s camp!”
The entire council was incredulous. He must be mad! They all thought so and said as much.
He calmly insisted that they do as he suggested.
Eventually, seeing that there was nothing really to be lost in humoring the old man, they consented.
No one could help getting excited as they watched and smelled such a delightful morsel being prepared after so many months of hardship!
When it was done and positioned in the bowl of the catapult everyone felt a pang at the thought of such a fine meal being tossed away like that.
“If only I could have even just a little taste!” Everyone had this thought pass through their minds at that moment.
But the order was given. The freshly baked loaf, and the still sizzling fresh fish, flew through the air towards their enemies.
A watchman, watching, noted where a measly projectile ejected from the had town landed. He was surprised and baffled by what he found when he got there. He gathered it up and rushed it to his general, still warm and appetizing, even after its flight and hard landing.
The general’s aides and officers gathered around him as he inspected this wonder. In all their minds was the hardship they had been through, maintaining a siege here in this, to their eyes, God forsaken outpost while those they had been certain were on the verge of starvation were tossing out such delights, as if to taunt them!
The general felt the same, though he couldn’t admit it. Turning quickly he rushed back into his tent, as though he had pressing business there. Once inside and alone, he raged at himself and his men, at their folly, at the year wasted, at the impossible resolve and unbelievable resources of those he had been for so long confident he would easily defeat.
He gave himself time to calm down. He thought up a story, an excuse for why they must break the siege and return across the border. He called in his officers and announced an urgent plan. They were needed! They must, no matter how close they might be to breaking this little town, return across the border and deploy their valiant forces in another, more important attack elsewhere.
All his officers and all his men agreed immediately. In their enthusiasm no one felt the need to acknowledge what they all felt, the futility of continuing to besiege a people who could afford to do what they had just witnessed.
The next morning, the guards on the town’s walls were startled to see that the enemy’s camp stood abandoned and empty. The general and his men must have slipped away during the night!
In the rejoicing that followed the Açore was added to the town’s crest, flying over its arched walls. The town’s name was changed to honor the bird that had brought them the means of their salvation.
It’s not known how, or even if, they honored the elder who came up with the plan….
I’ve long been captivated by this story, one my mother has recounted many times. It carries many lessons.
Perhaps it has something to say about this point, that we can either remain fixated on the powers arrayed against us or be open to possibilities and creative responses that may seem unreasonable. We all over-estimate whatever is arrayed against us. We are weighed down by prudent expectations. The only way to break out of this trap is to let go of both of these habits.
Such a story, told and retold down the centuries and applied over and over to new and seemingly insurmountable challenges, is very different from the predictive futurism we are so enamored of today. It does not look forward, anticipating anything. It is a tale from the deep past, told in language that takes us back and puts us in the shoes of others who have also found themselves in a precarious state. In this it inspires us without constraining our response. Obviously it offers no “solutions!” Unless we happen to find ourselves in exactly this same position!
They found the courage in themselves to make an opportunity out of an accident. This opportunity could have so easily slipped away; through selfishness, greed, through willful blindness. It can be so intoxicating to be proven right! Being able to claim, “This is foolish!” And relishing being right over finding a way forward.
They showed, and felt, respect; for their situation, for what the universe brought them, and for themselves and what they were capable of.
*Estrella was a beautiful princess in love with a gallant Spaniard, Don Diego.
He left for the wars and never came back.
Estrella retreated to the heights of the mountain and continually cried out,
“Mon Diego!, Oh! Mon Diego!”
Lost in her misery, mourning a life together that was never to be, she merged with the rocks to became their highest peak.
Her tears, pouring forth from off her cloud-draped face, ran down the mountain’s flanks to form a river, Mondego.
Is this another lesson regarding the dangers of petrification?…