Our Dream of Paradise
Idyllic worlds cannot sustain themselves. Though we long for them, and tell stories of Eden and of Heaven, no matter what myths we create, paradise is as impermanent as the wind. Ultimately, this is a good thing. In paradise there might be no struggle, or confusion, or pain, when we are perfect, we cannot change or grow. I suppose one perfect thing could transform into another perfect thing, but why? What drives us to evolve if not dissatisfaction and desire? That’s why Adam and Eve had to leave the garden. If they never experienced discomfort, they would have remained infantile forever.
Like the story of Eden, the Argentinian folk tale, “The Gentle People,”  tells of a land where nothing dies and everyone is your friend. No one wishes ill to any other; all is peace and happiness. We know this cannot last. Just as temptation entered the garden and disrupted the serenity of the two humans living there, so danger entered the gentle people’s world.
For the gentle people, the threat comes in the form of ugly and evil people who burst from the forest, shouting and snarling, weapons in hand. They are the opposite of the gentle ones. Such stories help us cope with monsters. We identify with the good people and rejoice when the evil ones are vanquished. In this way, we realize that though we are vulnerable, so are they, and we discover that we have the wit and the courage to beat them.
The Gentle People Change Form
In most stories, the hero battles the evil ones. The gentle people choose, instead, to flee. Fleeing is not simple, for the only available path takes them through the river of transformation. They must wade through rapids, and once they reach the other side, they will no longer be human. Instead, they will be guanacos, animals like llamas. To survive the disruption of their perfect lives, they will have to die and be reborn into something new.
They decide to take the risk and flee through the water. As they collapse onto the bank on the other side, they change into the gentle animals. Soon they settle back into their perfect existence. No one harms anyone else. The birds and flowers offer blessings. Nothing enters their world, and nothing leaves. The gentle ones are content, at peace.
Even so, all is not as it was. Change has entered their world and will not go away. The guanacos grow old and start to die. No longer immortal, they are consoled with a kind of heaven, for death is not complete. When their bodies fail and they fall to earth, little, blue flowers sprout from the spot where they lay. Within those blooms, the essence of the guanaco is held forever.
Living through Tragedy
Once again, we see how much we desire eternal joy. Life can be so miserable. We hope something will compensate us for all the torment we endure. The uncertainty, the loss, the confusion, the loneliness, the pain, the terror of our days proves that Earth is not Paradise, yet we would gladly give up the excitement of this bright and impermanent world for the eternal peace and harmony of heaven, even if it is stagnant. We seek a God who can create a world where nothing changes and nothing threatens our simple, safe lives.
But life is not simple, nor is it safe. Maybe your life has been easy. With money, the right connections, a good education, and the blessings of being normative, whatever that means in your neighborhood, you can make it through life with few disasters or hardships. Eventually, though, we all experience loss. Many of us are abused, teased, or neglected. Humans sin. That means we all, at one time or another, cause suffering to others and suffer ourselves.
Of course, suffering is also impermanent. It passes. Generally, when we allow ourselves to feel our pain, to experience our emotions in the moment, suffering passes more quickly than when we try to ignore it or hide it away. If we use our experiences, whether they are miserable or wonderful, we can become new. When we splash through the river of transformation, we, like the gentle people, will change.
Forced into Transformation
Even so, we balk at entering the water. All may be impermanent, and change may be inevitable, but we don’t like it. We must be forced into leaving the garden or fording the river. It’s not as if the new life God gave Adam and Eve was much fun, and the sharp rocks of the stream bed probably cut into the gentle people’s feet as they ran. Maybe the water chilled them, the current pulled them under. By the time they fell onto the grass on the other side, they were probably gasping for breath, cut and bruised, their hearts pounding. Change can be like that.
It doesn’t have to be. Sometimes we choose change, such as when we move away from our childhood home, or get married, or quit a job. At other times, change happens so gradually we barely notice, such as when we awaken one day to find ourselves wrinkled, our bones aching.
Most of the time, however, we change only under duress. We fear the pain it might cause us, so we usually have to be miserable before we seek healing, before we relinquish our addictions, before we embrace transformation.
Fearing or Embracing Change
Still, some of us are more open to change than others. Although thriving in chaos is not the same as appreciating change, those of us who are comfortable in chaos tend to crave newness, whether in relationships, careers, or experiences. The constant disruption keeps us from having to feel our feelings, acknowledge our imperfections, and change our understanding of the world. We can continue on, grasping for excitement, numbing themselves with drugs, and blaming everyone else for our problems. This is addiction, and some of us may die stuck in our illusion. Our bodies will change, of course, because time affects us all, but that doesn’t mean we will embrace the change that makes us new.
The change that makes us new is an internal transformation. It occurs when we wrestle with those surprises that bring us face-to-face with impermanence and shift our world. When life gives us no choice but to leave the safety of paradise or flee from evil, our inner self will be shattered. To survive, we must learn from our pain and let go of who we once were. Yes, we carry an essence with us when our human form dissolves and we become guanacos. Although we look different, part of us remains. Nonetheless, we cannot go back to being who we once were. When tragedy strikes, we learn things we cannot unlearn.
Impermanence and Internal Growth
That’s why we fight growth. It’s why we cling to what we know. Fortunately, God or fate or the vagaries of life rarely let us drift through our days without challenges. As we experience the inevitable hardships of life, as we grieve the losses that come with impermanence, will have the opportunity to discover our true selves. We have the chance to become more whole.
Such wholeness is not promised us, however. Rather than choosing transformation, we can cling to our addictions, to our illusion of eternal happiness. We can fight the evil ones with their own weapons, thus becoming like them. Fearing vulnerability, we can shun anything that forces us to engage honestly with any ourselves or anyone else. In this way, we may feel safe, but in reality, the emptiness and stagnation of perfection will have trapped us.
If we refuse one opportunity for growth, fear not. Life will provide us ample chances to change. When we finally embrace transformation, when we allow ourselves to be born again and again and again, we become, bit by bit, more alive. We might not live in Eden, we might not be like the gentle people, but that’s okay. After all, perfection is imperfect.
In faith and fondness,
- For the full tale, see Milord, Susan, Tales Alive! Ten Multicultural Folktales with Activities, Charlotte, VT: 1995, 13-17.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens