He’d been struck by lightning three times, had barely survived a bout of hanta virus, and of most immediate interest and concern for myself, been bitten by rattlesnakes three times in this area where we were now walking. I told my local guide that I didn’t know whether to stay as far away from him as possible, or cling close to his side since he must be the luckiest man in the world to have survived all that. Every since I was a kid and had a fleeting encounter with a copperhead in my backyard, I’ve been afraid of snakes. When I confessed this to my old Lakota friend Sid Byrd, he shared what he called an OIT with me- Old Indian Trick. “Bob! It’s very easy. If you see or hear a rattlesnake., jump as fast and high as you can. Now listen carefully, because this is the most important part. Don’t come down.”
These were my thoughts as I read the story of the snake and the wise man this morning. Here’s a quick retelling. (I found a version without mention of original source in an small volume called Stories from and Eastern Coffeehouse, adapted by Elizabeth Retivov.
For many years the people of a certain village lived in terror of vicious snake. Though not poisonous, his bite had sickened many. It so happened that a wise man passed through this village on his yearly pilgrimage, offering blessings to all who asked. The wise one listened as one of them asked if he could free the village of the torments of the snake. He agreed to try and was led to the hole where the fearsome serpent lived. He found the snake, fat and glistening, coiled in the midday sun.
“Snake! Please listen carefully. Your life, like all life is short. Your wickedness may be returned to you in many reincarnations of suffering. Turn from this path and embrace a life of peace and harmony. Please, you must stop biting the villagers. Try this for a year and I will return, and we can discuss your progress.” The wise man’s gently words and demeanor seemed to sooth the snake. The sun grew low in the sky, the air grew cool and the snake returned to it’s lair.
The year passed and the wise man returned to keep his appointment. The snake emerged from his hole. But the wise one was shocked to see the great change that had come over it. It was emaciated and covered with still bloody wounds and bruises.
“ What has befallen you dear snake?”
“ I have kept my promise to you,” the snake replied. But as soon as the villagers saw that I would not bite nor harm them, they began throwing rocks and sticks at me. Still I did not hiss nor bite. And so they were emboldened to approach me, even when I was asleep in the sun, kicking and beating me until I have become as you see me now. You are responsible for this miserable condition in which you find me.”
“I owe you an apology,” said the wise man, “ for it seems that I was not entirely clear in my explanation. I wanted you to stop biting the villagers. But I never meant that you should stop hissing in order to caution them about your powers.”
My father was fond of this quote (paraphrase I think) by Israeli diplomat Abba Eban. “I have no doubt that the meek shall inherit the earth. My only question is, after they do, will they still be meek?”
I wish I could say that this story leaves me with a clear moral and political message and compass. I can’t help thinking about the current frightening standoff as leaders of North Korea and the United States both threaten each other with first strike nuclear destruction. Politicians and their pissing contests. Little fingers on big triggers. The world trembles.
Two other things come to mind.
There’s a saying. “Rattlesnake does not bite man. Rattlesnake bites what man is thinking.” They are incredibly sensitive to even the most minuscule changes in heat. It’s one of the ways they find their prey. If you approach a snake with fear, or especially hostility, your body temperature will rise. Snake knows. We need to find a way to turn the heat down in this world.
What are your thoughts? Can or how does a person, or a country, defend themselves, or become a peacemaker without admitting or hinting at one’s capacity to use destructive force?
Finally, I invite you to watch and listen to the marvelous tale of Soft Child- How the Rattlesnake Got it’s Fangs, told by my good friend and master storyteller Joe Hayes. Here’s the link.