This is my paraphrase of an African Parable I first heard from my husband when Carlos and I were talking about how to help others well, without causing more harm, or arrogantly assuming we know what is best for them.Once there was a monkey who had been stranded on an island after a typhoon. As he sat and waited for the waters to recede, the monkey looked down and saw a fish swimming below. The monkey noticed that it kept jumping up, clearly trying to get air. But, it would fall back into the water, struggle for a while, and then leap back up.
Being of kind heart, the monkey determined to help the fish. Carefully he eased himself out onto a tree limb, the winds blowing him this way and that. He waited for his opportune time, and quickly snatched the fish up to safety. With great care he carried the fish onto dry ground. The fish got really excited, jumping around for a while. Then, it settled down, resting peacefully.The monkey’s heart swelled. What joy! He had helped another creature. He took a ‘selfie’ with his new fish friend and posted it on Facebook. Hashtag: “Life-changing!”
Obviously, that last part was not in the original! And, I’ve added a couple of variations, just to push a little further:
Variation One: The fish, being strong and slippery, squirmed and squirmed, freeing itself from the well-intended grip of the monkey. Without a backward glance, it swam swiftly away, vowing to never again get close to the meddling hands of land-dwellers. Hurt and confused, the monkey shook his fist, shouting angrily, “You fish are all the same. No wonder you never improve, you don’t even want to. Fine, you get what you deserve!”
Variation Two: After a while, the monkey went to wake the fish. But, it was too late. Horrified and heart-broken, he realized the mistake he had made. Seeing the destruction he caused, he vowed never again to try and help. Overwhelmed, he retreated, isolating himself from the world and its needs. “What can one monkey do? It is safer for us all if I just stay away”, he thought.
Both of these are temptations when working cross-culturally. To become cynical as our good intentions are received with resistance and pushback. Or, to experience failure and then withdraw, too overwhelmed to make any further attempt.Unlike the fish in this parable, there are many in the world who truly do need help. Not just ‘over there’ but in our own backyards, as well. And, there are so many kind-hearted people who desire to make a difference. But, good intentions are not an excuse to make a mess.
Instead of just reaching in and snatching up that fish, am I willing to wrestle with the complexity of things?
How do I share love and hope without causing harm? The answers are not simple or easy. People are complicated. But, Vale la Pena (it’s worthwhile or Worth the Pain) to do the hard work. Which starts with the humbling truth that I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do! And, that I probably need as much help as I’m trying to give others.So, even though it’s a little cheesy, here’s my attempt at one last variation:
Variation Three: The monkey thought the fish might need help, so he determined to talk with the fish. More than just talking, however, at the fish’s invitation, he even jumped in, learning what it was like to glide through the water and live without opposable thumbs.Spending time in the fish’s world helped expand the monkey’s perspective of his own. As their friendship grew, the fish shared ways the monkey could, in fact, help it. And, to his great surprise, the monkey learned that there were ways the fish could help him, too.
In time, both the monkey and the fish learned to admire and love much about the other’s life. Sharing what they learned with others of their kind brought more monkeys and fish together. Understanding grew. No longer would monkeys reach in and snatch fish. No longer would fish fear and avoid monkeys.
And they all took a group 'selfie' and post it on Facebook. Hashtag, "Lives Changed!"