An exegesis of a folk tale
Consider your life as a question. How will you, as this live hermeneutical forcefield, as this mode of perception irregularly used by strangers, be an answer to this world that questions you; and how will you allow the world to answer the question of your life? Unfortunately, the sheer force of habit, and especially the endless clutter of modernity as a false soteriology and distraction machine, can prevent us from letting the question have a full day in the sun. As we look for what clicks, we’re often duped into considering only the blips and kicks that are small enough to fit very narrow expectations.
We too easily forget that to be human is to have an inside much larger than our outsides; we may forget, too, as we get caught up in the mundane, that the cosmos consists of the seen and the unseen. We may miss those resonances that are big enough to fit the shape of our lives. This doesn’t mean we can stop that questioning, however. But if we don’t properly live the questions, we start asking smaller questions with more immediate, more trifling answers. We ask questions that do not live up to the fullness we yearn for and the fullness we’re made for. We stick to the obvious, even if it isn’t working.
The question each life asks is rich in its demands. We can be sure that the answer will not be found in too narrow of a conception of what is real but only in reality itself; in what transcends neat categorical and technical framings. If the answer were of our own making only, there would be no real surprise; and we need to be surprised. Unfortunately, deep questioning is counter-cultural and soporific slothfulness dulls our awareness. The effort to search for the truth is often difficult and tiresome. Perception becomes habituated to finding only what a narrow field of current concerns and preoccupations allows us to find. When we don’t find an answer, we may stop our lives from revealing themselves as questions. We move on to other questions and go looking for other more accessible answers instead. Or we may just stop looking.
This is something of the state we find Jack in, in an old folk tale dating back to the 1600s called Lazy Jack. Jack lives with his mother on a dreary common. Dreary means dull, typical, and unexceptional. Common means a piece of land but the word also contains murmurings of the dull, typical, and unexceptional. On a dreary common, life is doubly dull, typical, and unexceptional. The question of the meaning of being has been substituted with an unquestioning acceptance of the status quo. This is not acceptance with gratitude but acceptance as a manifestation of metaphysical boredom.
The two main characters in this tale, mother and child, are poor. Life is not what it ought to be and yet the poverty of their lives speaks of a possibility of some kind of improvement, even a hope for wealth. Folk tales, as Samuel Fohr has argued, could not be bothered with the banal superficiality of material wealth, however. They are more often concerned with the ultimate wealth, namely union with the divine. This union is symbolised often by a marriage: the harmony of heaven and earth. That, at least, is the improbable ending that we are hoping for in this story but some lessons need to be learned, especially by Jack, before the improbable becomes probable, then possible, and then actual.
Jack’s mother works very hard to make ends meet but Jack is so lazy and so deaf to the question of his own life that he does nothing to help. He accepts things as he finds them. He aspires to nothing. The sense of paternal expectation is starkly absent. The burden of reality is placed solely on the lonesome matriarch. She mother earth, perhaps, or the principle of nurturing and grounding. But nature, meaning the sense of the adventurous call of the real, is not heard because the question that Jack’s life is asking has grown quiet. As we should expect when habit and custom have settled down into a miserable status quo, a decision must be made by someone. Jack needs to be initiated into the realm of masculine duty, so his mother conjures within herself the courage to confront her son. She hopes, I’m sure, that he will hear the question of his life resound.
“Listen to your life,” says the writer Frederick Buechner. “See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” The phenomenologist Michel Henry proposes that in the feeling that we are feeling, in auto-affection, we find the essence of life. Anything that allows us to feel this feeling is life expanded. Anything that negates or denies our feeling-of-our-feelings is barbarism.
Jack’s mother offers her son an opportunity to feel alive. She tells him that if he doesn’t bother to work for his porridge, he can try living on an empty stomach. She awakens him to his hunger. A spark ignites a small flame within him. The question of his life is stirred but it first emerges in a rather belittled form. Initially, as we may have expected, Jack has no idea what he is supposed to do. He has leant into his acedia for so long that he has no skills. At this point, he thinks that the question his life is asking is a simple question of what he is supposed to do to get money. It is not a question of meaning but a question of function. More strongly put, it is not the question of God but the question of Mammon. Even if Jack does not yet appreciate the question his life is asking, at least he senses the vital link between himself and the world. Perhaps having a poorly formulated question, one too utilitarian for anyone’s higher good, is better than having no question at all.
The best Jack can do is to make himself available. On his way out into the world, he meets a neighbouring farmer and asks if he can help with anything. The farmer offers him a penny for some odd jobs. Jack works well enough to earn that penny and is filled with pride. But he is getting ahead of himself. He has done nothing impressive and the pittance he earned was likely because of the pity the farmer took on his poor neighbour. The story, we should remember, was written in the days when loving thy neighbour as thyself was taken as gospel. Anyway, on his way home, distracted while hopping from stone to stone as he passes over a brook, Jack forgets the penny in his hand, unconsciously opens his hand, and loses it. He doesn’t even notice.
Your life is a question. It poses itself as a questioning of the real and a questioning of yourself as a participant in the real. Once the question is allowed to come alive, the spark of it fanned into a flame, it will keep burning within you. And it’ll even scold you until you let it blaze properly to its fullness. If you settle for a penny when your life is asking you to seek the keys to a kingdom, be careful. If you settle for lesser goods when you were meant to find the answer in the highest good, you can be sure that loss will follow you.
I know, however, that many of our losses are destined for us by forces that have nothing to do with us. Every relationship we have will end, although the reasons why will differ widely and wildly. We must contend with loss if we are to know what the meaning of anything is. That our lives pose themselves as questions does not guarantee that we will find the answers we want. In the story of Lazy Jack, the boy realises only when he arrives home that the penny is gone. And by then it’s too late to go back and look for it.
“Foolish boy!” his mother says, hiding a subtle sense of pride at the fact that her son at least managed to do something. “You should have put it in your pocket,” she suggests and he agrees that this is what he should have done and what he aims to do next time. On the surface, this little word of advice from Jack’s mother seems so simple that we might miss its hidden profundity. She is nudging her son to be properly responsive to what the world offers and to be responsible for what it gives. What Jack should have done with the coin is, in principle, what we ought to do with everything: we should find a place to put it, the right place for it so that when we need to retrieve the gift and the lessons it has brought with it, we are not left wallowing in our own perplexity. Jack takes the principle literally, though, as we discover soon enough.
The next day, he offers his help to a dairy farmer who repays his efforts with a jar of milk. Jack, having promised to store what he receives as he should have stored the penny, puts the jar into a large pocket in his jacket. His earnings spill everywhere, obviously, soaking Jack and dripping along the path he takes on the way home until nothing is left. His mother, her pride at her son’s attempts instantly forgotten, offers him the solution he failed to think of. “Silly clot, you should have carried the jar on your head,” she says. After all, she implies, the world is not just asking one thing of you. You need to be properly responsive to what you receive and properly responsible for it. Allow the question of your own life to be genuinely vulnerable to the real.
Our capacities need to constantly expand as we learn from the world, and as we grow to fit what it is asking of us. It is an amazing thing that even error can allow truth to arise. If consciousness is a kind of negativity, a confrontation between the negativity of consciousness and the world can produce understanding. But Jack is currently hooked on a kind of technological thinking: life is for him, at this point, a bit like an app that should just do what he expects it to do. He thinks that life ought to be friction-free. But a friction-free life is a life in decline, a life given over to the barbarism of failing to feel our aliveness. It may be a smooth life but a smooth life is a like a slide that leads all the way down to hell.
The next day, Jack finds himself in the service of another farmer, another masculine presence, who repays his help with cream cheese. Jack attempts to carry the cheese on his head as he should have carried the jar of milk, and he finds, again too late, that this was yet another moronic move. He has not sufficiently developed his capacity to accommodate the demands of the world; he has not fully recognised the size of the question his life is asking. The result is a mess. Some of the cheese gets stuck in his hair and the rest falls apart and lands on the pathway as he trundles home. Jack’s mother sighs a very deep sigh and again offers him a word of advice, delivered more sternly than before: “Dimwit,” she says, “you should have carried it very carefully in your hands!”
Almost classically stupid, Jack is just doing the same thing while expecting different results. Right? Nevertheless, even if the progress has not been great, he has made some progress. He has learned that coins should be carried in pockets, milk jars should be carried on heads, and cheese should be carried carefully in your hands. His repertoire is expanding. But, in any case, the story would not be as funny if Jack weren’t still, in some ways, Lazy Jack. It is true of the human story in general that many of the things we struggled with when we were younger will be the same things we struggle with even when we’re old. This, I think, is one way of understanding why Jack consistently sees the literal answer but fails to see the philosophical principle. The literal answer is easier: find some technique, some certainty, and stick with it. This is the sort of thing that happens every day as people put more and more of their faith in technologies and political systems that make everyone’s lives demonstrably worse. Jack promises, once again, to follow his mother’s advice.
The next day, Jack helps a baker out and the baker promises to give him nothing for his work but a large tomcat. It’s an odd payment, but then life often gives us strange gifts. Jack doesn’t complain. He takes the tomcat home at the end of the day, trying to carry it carefully in his hands as if it is cream cheese. The cat does not like this and begins to attack the boy. Jack is forced to let the cat go. Arriving home empty-handed once again, he tells his mother what happened. “Oh Jack, what will I ever do with you?” she says, her previous frustrations giving way to worry. “You should have tied the creature up with string and walked it along behind you.” So when, the following day, he hires himself out to a butcher and the butcher pays him with a large shoulder of mutton, this is what Jack does. He walks the meat behind himself— or tries to. The meat is spoiled; and the boy, this time, is met with a very strong reprimand. “You ninnyhammer,” his mother tells him. “You should have carried it on your shoulder!”
On the following Monday, Jack goes out once more and hires himself out to another farmer. We should notice, although it is not explicit in the story, that a weekend has come between Jack and his search for work. A moment of pause, a time for reflection perhaps. Perhaps it’s a time to go to church and repent of a week full of foolishness. At least, we should hope that the boy has had time to reflect.
Many of the greatest problems in the world are problems of haste. It is worth eliminating haste wherever possible. Create spaces in your life to stop, to let your mind wander, to daydream. We fill up our lives with so much rubbish. It is well worth, say, taking a fairy tale and sitting with it and mulling over it and pondering what it might be saying to you. Some stories ask things of us but the questions they are asking can only be heard when we slow down. And sometimes we put the stories we read or hear and the encounters we have in our pockets when we really should be carrying them around on our heads or in our hands or behind us or on our shoulders. If we take the time, we can live deeply and not just quickly.
Anyway, it becomes clear that Jack has not taken his weekend, this marvellous gap in his own story, seriously. Still, sometimes graces will show up even when we have foolishly squandered our time on trifles. His latest employer offers him a donkey for payment. Impressively, Jack’s earnings have improved even if his awareness of the question that his life poses to the world hasn’t. Jack remembers his mother’s advice and elects to carry the donkey as he should have carried that leg of mutton. This turns out to be very difficult but Jack is strong and just manages to hoist the donkey up onto his shoulders before setting off back home. When have you taken on a burden that was never intended to be a burden? In an instant, Jack is transformed into a kind of idiotic Atlas. Perhaps this is not a terrible thing in the end, But we will have to wait, for it is here that we must leave Jack for the moment, under the weight of that donkey, while we consider whether the story is really only about him.
This is the grand illusion of our time, of course, in what Christopher Lasch calls a culture of narcissism. It is easy to live as if we are the protagonists while everyone else is just an extra. But what if the point of our story isn’t us? Or, perhaps that is putting it too strongly. What if the point is to join with the stories of often unanticipated others? If we are caught too much in our own narrow frame of reference, we often need the grace of sheer otherness to interrupt us. We need revelation to wreck our natural theology and to offer an answer that transcends habit-enforced expectations. This is precisely what Jack needs, given his especially slow progress in learning his higher calling.
Almost as if starting an entirely different story, we discover that there is a very rich man, and he lives with his only daughter. Here is a man with a daughter, not a woman with a son. The two of them are wealthy while the woman and her son are not. But their situation is sad nevertheless. The rich man’s daughter is beautiful but deaf and dumb. She’s shut off from the world. The doctors around the rich man tell him that his daughter will be cured if only someone can make her laugh. The man gets the word out that any man who can make his daughter laugh can marry her. Many try to do just this but all fail. And then, one day, the young lady happens to be looking out of her bedroom window and she sees Jack passing by, struggling under the weight of a donkey, which he is—of all things—carrying on his shoulders. The donkey’s legs stick up into the air awkwardly because, for some reason, Jack has opted to carry the bleating and complaining beast upside down. The beautiful lady sees the absurdity that Jack somehow cannot. And she laughs. She laughs and laughs and laughs. It takes her a while to stop but when she does she finds her speech and hearing restored.
I can think of more than a few wonderful instances in my life when my expectations were thwarted and overcome by what was presented to me; when an answer was provided to a question I didn’t even know I was asking; and when I was, quite to my own astonishment, an answer to a question someone else was asking. This is, if nothing else, a symbol of grace. This is what we’re here for. We’re here to live in the midst of the questioning that is our own lives, and to find a response big enough to fit the idea of our lives. We know, then, that the story of Lazy Jack ends exactly as we hoped it would; exactly, that is, as we hope every story will end, if only in the sense that the resonance between our lives and the world resounds most fully.
This is what we’re looking for, and at least one of the points of this story is that even if it is not easily arrived at, such a resonance is nevertheless possible. The rich man is elated and fulfils his promise. Jack marries the man’s daughter, that very beautiful girl whose laughter is a signal of transcendence, and they bring out the best in each other for as long as they both live. Jack’s mother gets to live with them in a large house, happy and no longer forced to work her fingers to the bone. There’s even a hint, although it is not stated explicitly in the old tale, that the old woman and the old man end up marrying each other.