Not long ago in my Social Justice 12 class, we were discussing a particular genocide when one of my students drew our attention to the Cherokee legend of The Tale of the Two Wolves.
In this story, a child who was wronged comes to his grandfather for advice. The elder tells him that in every person there’s a battle between two wolves. One wolf is anger, envy, regret, self-pity, guilt, false pride, vengeance and the like. The other wolf is love, joy, peace, kindness, hope, humility, forgiveness, truth, compassion and faith.
When the child asks which wolf wins, the grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”
There’s tremendous wisdom in this story on several levels. The grandfather is raising awareness in the child, letting him know that we have a choice in how we respond to situations. The negative response is often a reaction, made without thought. When we realize that we do have a choice in how we respond, however, we can pause and choose which wolf we will feed.
On another level, the story is about creating habits, good or bad. Feelings don’t just happen; we play a large role in choosing them. Our habitual thoughts impact what may appear to be an impulsive response. The wolf we’re feeding will dominate our thoughts, and thus influence our reactions.
The beauty of our humanity is that we’re capable of thought and reason. We can observe our reactions and ask: Is that what I really want to believe? Is that the way I want to live my life? Do I really want to give that much power to a person who has wronged me? Is that person who wronged me even aware of how hurtful her words are?
We can thus ask ourselves which wolf we’re feeding at any given moment.
The most profound human freedom is this ability to choose our thoughts. It’s something great minds have always focused on.
Viktor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Marcus Aurelius tells us, “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
Lao Tzu tells us, “He who controls others is powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.”
The same can be said for our perspective on history. Yes, horrific crimes have been committed. It’s important to understand these and understand how they happened. If we understand the mistakes of history, they’re less likely to be repeated.
However, everything negative in history has come face to face with the power of goodness. Heroes always rise. We remember the names of some of them – like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela – but there are many, many more.
Consider the amazing people who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust, or hid slaves on their journey to freedom, or risked their lives giving food and shelter to a person labelled an enemy.
Consider the person who stands up for a peer being bullied or puts an end to juicy gossip.
These are the stories we need to tell; these are the wolves we need to feed. These are the people we need to remember.
Amazing people are all around us. In fact, they live within each of us. In order to bring them to prominence we simply need to pay attention to them.
If we’re going to move forward as a world, as a nation and as individuals, we must be conscious of the fact that we’re the ones who choose which wolf is fed.