I have a friend (more my wife's friend than mine) who has lived her life following Thoreau's "different drummer". She speaks several languages, has lived in several countries, trained as a Waldorf teacher, and did her student teaching abroad. She does not lead an oppulent life, and has sacrificed dearly for going her unique path. She works hard to provide the life she thinks her young son deserves. And despite the obvious virtues of her character, I understand that her parents have little respect for who she is or what she has done in life.
I was reminded of her, and of people with similar burdens, when I recently read the fairy tale "The Beauty and the Horns" from The Laughing Prince: A Book of Jugoslav Fairy Tales. In this tale, a rich man tells his only son that he will bequeathe his entire estate to his son as long as the son promises not to go in search of a fabled woman named "Peerless Beauty," no matter how beautiful anyone tells him she is. He should, instead, settle down with a hard-working girl from his own village, like a sensible boy. Well, some time after his father's death, the youth gets more and more curious about this Peerless Beauty, so he begins to ask around. All the older men he speaks to give him the same advice his father had. But that only makes him more determined. He ends up blowing his fortune and ruining his life in the pursuit of Peerless Beauty (who tricks and deceives him, mercilessly). But he persists and eventually wins her over, and in the process breaks the enchantment she is under, and wins back his fortune. He ends up happier than he ever would have been if he'd just settled for what was "sensible."
The message of this tale (and others) is remarkable when you consider the milieu it comes from. Just image Balkan peasants and burghers telling this tale at the hearth on a cold winter's eve. Now these are the very people who would tell their own children to be "sensible," and to forgo what Joseph Campbell famously called "following your bliss." Why were these people telling a story that was obviously in conflict with their conservative values? They didn't want their children running off chasing dreams when they came of age, did they? So what gives?
My theory: this message was planted in the collective subconscious by The Hierarchy. Who is The Hierarchy? They are those human souls who have advanced beyond the level of "normal" human consciousness -- many of them no longer needing to incarnate in a physical body -- and are working in unison for the evolution of the race. The Hierarchy is constantly influencing the actions of the human race through our subconscious, suggesting ideals to be striven for, and giving us inspirations to bring to fruition. These impulses are often expressed in the works of more enlightened artists and scientists. Rudolf Steiner said that fairy tales were retellings of psychic experiences in a symbolic form. They are a form of folk art appropriate for people of all ages and from all srata of society. The perfect medium for The Hierarchy.
This tale emphasizes the necessity of following our inner strivings to attain something we intuitively know is perfect and beautiful (Peerless Beauty). This is none other than our inner self, our soul, our divine spark (our daemon, Holy Guardian Angel, Inner Master, etc., etc). The mundane world frowns on people who pursue their inner reality rather than riches and worldly power. Don't get me wrong! I'm not talking about running off, joining a monastery, and taking vows of poverty. I'm talking about priorities. It's what is referred to in the Gospel of Mark in the rhetorical question "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?" In the end, the young hero wins everything back: he gets the girl (his anima, if you will), and regains his fortune and power. How? By answering the inner call; by not giving in to the cowardly desire to stay comfortable and safe, and to sit on the bags of gold his father left him; by not doing what the crowd thinks is "sensible."
I have, myself, done many things that my family, friends and colleagues thought were... well... crazy. Most times they worked out fabulously. Occasionally I fell on my face (or other parts of my anatomy). I recall when I was contemplating a particularly risky move in my life (coming to Hungary with almost no money in my pocket and only vague employment prospects), a good friend said to me, "If you don't do this now, when you have the chance, will you be able to live with yourself the rest of you life, wondering what would have happened if you'd done it?" That was enough to convince me. Living with that sort of doubt forever after sounded like hell itself. (Thanks Geoff F. !)
And there are times I have been more "sensible." When it was the right time to be sensible, it worked out just fine. Other times, I've hated myself afterwards for being a chicken shit. Life is meant to be lived boldly.
The message of fairy tales is often at odds with the values of the people who retold them. But then, most people are innocent enough, or jaded enough to believe they are "just stories."
I think the friend I mention at the beginning of this essay is a brave woman.