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The Bear and the Fox – Predatory Projection

A Bear and a Fox agreed to live together over the winter; the Bear would have someone to watch his store of honey while he hibernated, and the Fox would gain the protection of sleeping in the Bear’s cave.

After a month, the Fox started feeling hungry. But as he neared the entrance to the cave and felt the sharp wind bite his nose, he decided not to hunt for his own food: instead, he tiptoed past the Bear to a small tunnel in the cave where the honey-pots were stored. The Fox greedily ate up a quarter of the Bear’s honey, and, coming back, carefully smeared a few drops on the Bear’s fur.

In another month, the Fox was hungry again, and the weather was even worse. Again, he snuck to the honey-pots and ate another portion of honey, leaving about half of the Bear’s original store, again smearing a bit of honey on the Bear’s fur.

Twice more that winter, the Fox repeated the same theft, eating a quarter of the honey each time; the Bear awoke for Spring, ravenously hungry, only to find his food stores depleted. Furious, he confronted the Fox, only to be told: “You ate the honey yourself, when you were asleep. Look, there’s still some stuck to your fur.”

The Bear had no answer to this, and as he now had to hunt for his breakfast, he lumbered off, muttering curses under his breath. But even though he could not prove any wrongdoing, he never trusted the Fox again.

This old Hungarian folktale (a charming re-telling of which may be found here) showcases a regular feature of many predators, sometimes known as projection: they will turn the accusation of wrongdoing onto those they have hurt. So, the adulterous wife will accuse her husband of having an affair, the controlling boss will chide his employees for wanting to have everything “their” way, and the cyber-bully will tell all of Facebook that she is the injured party.

Manipulative groups and individuals will use this form of gaslighting not only as a pre-emptive strike, but also to confuse the issue: if both parties in a conflict are claiming that the other person hurt them, a bystander will not know who to believe and will often dismiss the whole case as “he said, she said” without looking deeper – the victim’s reputation is tarnished, and the predator escapes unpunished.

Skilled predators may even go one step further, and, telling everyone that they are the injured party, will weaponize a fleet of empaths to attack their victims, and so good people will end up attacking other good people, unaware that they are doing the work of a predatory individual – or, if they cannot be made to attack, they will simply give the predator un-deserved credit, believing the abuser to be “misunderstood” at best, or a victim of some conspiracy at worst. Destructive groups with a religious background will insist that those who criticize them for abuses are really being “directed by Satan” or some other evil force, while abusive therapy groups will label their critics as “sick” or “damaged”.

However, there is a way to cut through the fog of accusations and counter-accusations to determine who is the injured party and who is the perpetrator: while an abuser will be careful to keep their accusations vague and general, harping on the person’s perceived motives and engaging in ad hominem attacks, those who truly have been injured will relate specific incidents of abuse, and offer concrete evidence. An abuser will beg you not to look at the “pack of lies” their accuser wants you to read, while honest people will want you to research both sides of the story.

If you are on the receiving end of such predatory projection, resist the impulse to fight fire with fire – no matter what insults might be thrown, if you refrain from mudslinging, it will be harder for the predator to paint you as vicious or vindictive. Keep your head and document all that is said and done: although a lie can indeed make its way around the world before the truth can tie up its boots, hard facts – and the predator’s own words – can help dispel many nasty rumors, if stated calmly and bolstered with evidence.

When dealing with a predator’s projection, it is best to use every ounce of healthy skepticism and research the problem from many different angles, asking not only who has been injured, but what has been done, when, and how. Separate facts from opinions, remembering that even the best of us can sometimes be fooled by a sufficiently glib lie.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about predatory projection that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!



The Chipmunk, the Groundhog, and the Crow – Unhelpful “Help”

Early one Spring, a Chipmunk, having lost his footing near a stream, fell into the rushing icy waters, and, by the time he realized what he’d done, he had been carried several meters along in the freezing rapids, buffeted and battered by the rocks in the current’s path.

His cries for help as he paddled frantically along attracted many of the woodland creatures, including a Crow, who cawed out: “You silly fool! You shouldn’t have gone so close to the shore this early in the year!”

However, at that moment, a wise old Groundhog raised herself up on her hind feet, surveyed the situation, and bellowed: “Look up to your left, Cousin! There’s a branch coming up – take hold of it!”

The Chipmunk looked up just in time to see the branch, and, gathering his remaining strength, reached out and caught it, digging his tiny claws easily into the wet bark. Once he stopped shuddering with fear, he pulled himself carefully to safety, crawling slowly to shore, wet and bruised, but otherwise unharmed, to where the other animals had gathered.

As soon as he was able, the Chipmunk embraced the Groundhog gratefully. “Thank you, dear Cousin!” he cried breathlessly. “You saved me!”

“You saved yourself, Little One,” the Groundhog answered gently.

The Crow fluttered down beside them. “Well, where’s my thanks?” he demanded, after an awkward pause.

The Chipmunk eyed him coldly, his wet fur bristling. “Why would I owe you thanks? While my cousin here helped me get out of trouble, all you did was tell me what I’d done to get in – and I’d already figured that part out for myself!”

vWhen someone is in a situation that is out of their control – whether that situation is an abusive relationship, membership in a high-demand group, or being caught in the web of fraud – the very last thing they want to hear is how they could have avoided it. That information, while it would have been valuable beforehand, and may be helpful in the future, is not needed by a person still in crisis. People who are being abused don’t need blame; they get plenty of that from their abuser. What they need is opportunities, choices, and practical information on how to escape the danger. It also helps if this information is given with respect and compassion, rather than ridicule. “I never would have been tricked like that!” is rarely true and never helpful.

Although we have mentioned it before, it is worth noting again that Livia Bardin’s free resource guide, Starting Out in Mainstream America is one of the best guidebooks out there on starting over after emerging from a high-control group or abusive relationship. We also heartily recommend Janja Lalich and Karla McLaren’s Escaping Utopia, and of course, Janja Lalich and Madeline Tobias’ Take Back Your Life. For other resources and recommended reading, visit our resources page.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about helpful – or not-so-helpful – advice that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!



Who Benefits from Hate and Fear?

The Squirrels and the Rabbits, after many years of feuding, were about to come to a truce. Most of the other animals rejoiced: they had grown tired of the endless scuffling in underfoot burrows and the shrill, hectoring curses from overhead branches. The Fox, however, was not pleased. He liked to sit quietly under a disputed bush or tree, and wait for two or three combatants to scurry by, their normal caution blunted by anger. He enjoyed this quick route to a good supper, and didn’t want to lose it.

Fox also knew his opinion was bound to be unpopular, so he wore a mask of vulpine concern when he approached Mother Hedgehog, who was a longtime friend of a prominent Rabbit family. “Like you, I’m glad the Rabbits are parleying with the Squirrels, at last,” he declared suavely. “I do hope that the Rabbits aren’t making a grave error, trusting those Squirrels.” He refused to be drawn further, only mentioning some “rumors” about a plot to betray the Rabbits, adding: “It’s probably nothing. But still, one wonders….”

Next, the Fox visited an old Chipmunk, who was like a second father to the Chief Squirrel. “You must be so proud of your young friend! He’s certainly brave to be brokering peace in times like these, and with the Rabbits, even! Never mind all those rumors one hears, he just soldiers on and – what rumors? Oh, well, if you haven’t heard, then there must be nothing to them! That said, I am surprised….”

Over a dozen more visits, the wily Fox used his memory of the two tribes’ ongoing battles, and sought out the animals who had been hurt by the feuding – those who had their burrows trampled through, those who had nuts and twigs rain down on their heads; in short, everyone who could possibly hold a grudge against either Squirrel or Rabbit had a trip through their bad memories, courtesy of the Fox. But he not only revived the old injuries; he exaggerated them, and put them in the worst possible light.

Pretty soon, the whole forest was on the brink of battle, with those injured by Squirrels joining the Rabbits’ cause, and those injured by the Rabbits siding with the Squirrels. The Squirrels and the Rabbits, paranoid and jumpy about the vague rumors no one could quite trace (but everyone was now repeating), abandoned all talks of truce, and were, once more, easy prey for the Fox.

We humans are social creatures; we can be fiercely loyal to our “team”, be it our family, our neighborhood, our political party or our nation. We also don’t take kindly to people hurting those we love – sometimes, we don’t even need proof of that hurt to react. Sadly, once we decide to start distrusting and disliking the “other side,” it’s much harder to make peace, partly because we’re also hot-headed, proud creatures, and often say things we shouldn’t in the heat of the moment, and all too often because we find it hard to swallow our pride and admit that we might have been wrong.

And sadly, sometimes, people who serve only their own interests – whether it be a predatory individual or a coercive group – will deliberately “stir the pot”, fostering enmity and sowing fear through “triangulation”. Abusers will use this fear to keep their victims in the net of undue influence, and to lure others in: it’s a scary world, they’ll tell you, and you can’t trust anyone. Except for us, of course…

When “battle lines” are being drawn, before taking sides, we should take stock: examine what we know, and how we know it. A totalist group or manipulative individual won’t want you to think, they’ll want you to fight, and to keep fighting: those other people don’t have a different viewpoint, they’re just evil! You can’t go to another church, it’s a front for Satan! We can’t talk to those people, they’re vermin!

Those who practice healthy skepticism know that only a predator benefits from hate and fear.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about triangulation that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!






Video – Liminal Thinking and the Elephant

This light-hearted whiteboard animation discusses liminal thinking – the part of our reasoning which happens just below the threshold of conscious thought. This phenomenon is demonstrated with the classic tale of the blind men and the elephant: one man, grasping the animal’s trunk, declared the elephant to be a rope, another, feeling the elephant’s leg, disagreed and said it was a tree.

The liminal thinking that we each rely on to construct our unique version of reality is similar, employing a pyramid of factors: our experiences inform our needs, which in turn inform our assumptions, which inform our conclusions and finally our beliefs, each step relying on the one before it – all of which we unconsciously accept as “obvious” reality, but is, like the different parts of the elephant, actually just a fraction of the overall picture.

Author Dave Gray, assisted by animator Michael Keay, demonstrates the necessity of bringing our liminal thinking into our conscious thought, to examine the pyramid of our belief structure, and compassionately explore the beliefs of others with different worldviews.

The Talisman-Seller – Busting the Bubble of Sky-High Claims

Two women, perusing items at a flea market, came across the table of a man who was selling good luck charms and talismans. Calling out to them, the man drew them in with his sales pitch: “This medallion guarantees great happiness to its owner, and here – this statuette, placed in your home, will protect it from thieves. And this talisman will bestow unlimited wealth and power to anyone who holds it.”

One of the women was interested in the man’s wares, but the other pulled her friend away with a laugh, saying: “If his talismans and charms actually worked, do you think he would be selling them here? He could simply use one of his own charms, and be wealthy and powerful – yet instead, here he is, a flea market vendor.”

Of course, no magical talisman guarantees wealth and power to its possessor, but even when the claims are less fantastic, it is always good to take a hard look at what you are being promised – and the facts about the person or organization promising you a wonderful outcome. From the psychic who keeps shop in a shoddy “strip mall” and drives a junked-out car, to the “expert” on child-rearing whose grown children won’t speak to him, many charlatans are easy to spot: you only have to compare their own life with the happiness and prosperity they claim to be able to summon for you, and the scam falls flat.

Some fraudulent people and groups are more clever, and you might have to research a little more thoroughly to see the inconsistencies: you would have to attend several meetings at a Kingdom Hall before the façade of “the Happiest People on Earth” fell away, revealing that Jehovah’s Witnesses are prone to the same troubles as everyone else – if not more, for being in a high-control group. Similarly, those in the upper levels of Scientology are directed not to “show off” the superhuman powers they have gained from their courses, supposedly so they do not scare lesser mortals, but really to hide the fact that they have no special powers whatsoever, except perhaps the ability to keep donating money to the mother cult. An abusive spouse will swear that no one else could possibly love you the way they do, knowing that it will take many years of dating and self-healing before you realize that they never really loved you at all.

It does no harm to ask questions and do a little research before buying either a talisman or a destructive belief system, or as the old adage has it: we should look before we leap. When considering the claims of any person or group – whether they are merely offering us an improvement in life-skills or eternal life and happiness – we should remember this fable from Aesop, and look at not only their promises, but also at their own achievements – and apply healthy skepticism in judging just how likely it is that they can keep those promises.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about all-or-nothing thinking that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t Ever Let Go of the Basics

An accountant, known and respected for his accuracy and diligence at work, was nonetheless somewhat of a mystery in his small office for over a half century. Polite and soft-spoken, he talked very little and avoided conversation, preferring to work through his lunch hour rather than socialize. He was the first to arrive and the last to leave every day; no one could remember him ever taking a day off sick. However, everyone who worked with him noticed one small, subtle habit: at the start of every fresh task, he would open his top desk drawer, peer into a manila file folder kept there, nod to himself solemnly, and then replace the folder in the drawer and begin his work.

Although no one wished to ask him directly about this ritual, his co-workers speculated endlessly upon its meaning. What was in the folder? Was it some bit of inspiration or wisdom? Some rules of thumb that helped him in his task? A picture of a loved one? In this small, intimate office, it was the one topic of conversation that never grew old.

The accountant, however, did grow old, and eventually died: his co-workers arrived one morning to find him slumped over his desk, his slide-rule clutched in his hand. As the coroner took him away, the rest of the office waited a full five minutes before someone spoke the words that were going through everyone’s minds:

“It wouldn’t be disrespectful to look in the folder now, would it?”

The senior manager approached the drawer, the rest of the staff clustered around her. She slid out the drawer solemnly, and held her breath as she pulled out the folder and opened it. Taped inside was a single sheet of paper, with only five words:

“Debits go on the left.”

Although accountancy has changed since the days of slide rules and paper ledgers, the practice of entering debits to the left is so universal that the idea of an experienced accountant having to remind himself about it is absurd. However, this anecdote from early 20th century humorist Bennet Cerf contains an important grain of wisdom: no matter how absurd it might seem, it is always good to remind ourselves of the basics, and to check ourselves, regularly, to see that we really are following our own rules.

The hypocrisy of a high-control group campaigning for “human rights” while denying those rights to its members is easy to see – from the outside. But we are all blind to our own hypocrisies: from the environmentalist who uses K-cups for her coffee, to the vegetarian wearing leather shoes, to the economist who complains about the death of small retail, yet buys everything from Amazon and Wal-Mart.

When invoking critical thinking and healthy skepticism, it is important to check our preconceptions – even (and especially!) our dearest and oldest-held beliefs.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about all-or-nothing thinking that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

The Mouse’s Tail and the Tales of Predators

A Mouse, while wriggling free of a trap, had to sacrifice his tail; the wound where the tail had been torn away hurt terribly, and he found his sense of balance thrown off because of the loss.

His tail had been such a part of him that he wasn’t sure he could live without it. Wondering if he could regrow it, he sought out his cousin the Squirrel. “You have such a lush, beautiful tail,” he said. “Could you teach me to regrow mine?”

“I’m so sorry, cousin,” she told him sadly, “for the loss of your tail. But I don’t know how to re-grow a tail. I don’t think we Rodents can – the only one I know who regrows his tail is our friend the Horse.”

Encouraged, the Mouse ran to see his friend the Horse and put the question to him.

“My tail,” the Horse said slowly, “is different from yours – the only part of mine that grows is the hair; if I lost the dock, that is, the part of my tail that is flesh and bone as yours was, I would not be able to grow it back. I am sorry, friend, but your tail is gone, forever.”

The Mouse looked so sad, that the Horse added, kindly: “I heard about your escape from that trap; you are lucky to be alive. But as much of a loss as your tail is, you can adapt to life without it. It will be hard, and it will take time, but you can do it.”

The Mouse, still too deep in mourning to hear the full wisdom of his friend’s words, left the Horse’s paddock in such a state of sorrow that he did not see the Fox until she spoke to him: “Why are you looking so forlorn, little Mouse?”

“I lost my tail last week,” he complained, “and my friend the Horse and my Cousin Squirrel tell me that it won’t grow back.”

“Oh, but I can teach you how to grow your tail back!” the Fox assured him. “I’m not surprised your friends and relations don’t know, because it is a secret only given to us Foxes (which is why we have such lush, beautiful tails). But, because I feel bad for you, I will show you how. Just come along to my burrow …”

We don’t need to follow this story to its grisly conclusion to understand its moral: those who wish to take advantage will tell any tale, even an impossible one, to gain our trust.

Sometimes life just hurts; we all experience terrible loss. No faith tradition, philosophical system or mental discipline can completely banish our natural portion of suffering – the best of these, like good friends, can only promise us they will be there to help us cope and inspire us to grow.

An honest person does not claim to be able to turn the world into a paradise; only a predatory charlatan seeking to manipulate will promise the impossible. The claims of anyone promising “pie in the sky” should be countered with a hefty dose of healthy skepticism.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about all-or-nothing thinking that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!





Bird, Beast or Bat? The Dangers of All-Or-Nothing Thinking

A Bat, flitting through the forest, was captured by a gang of woodland Beasts.

“We are at war with the Birds,” they told him angrily. “You fly through the air like a Bird, but you have fur. Are you Beast or Bird?”

“I am a Beast,” he told them, and was released.

Flying on through the forest, he was soon caught by a group of Birds. “We see that you look like a Beast, but you fly like a Bird,” they shouted. “We are at war with the Beasts. So, are you Beast or Bird?”

“Surely, I am a Bird,” he said, and again flew free.

Eventually, the Birds and the Beasts settled their differences, but when they came to a census of who was a Bird and who was a Beast, they found the Bat on both lists. The combined council of Birds and Beasts called him forward, asking him to choose, once and for all, whether he was Bird or Beast.

“Can I not be both?” he protested. “Indeed, during the war I pretended to be one or the other to escape harm, but I have never felt enmity to either side, and count myself as kin to both.”

However, those who had fought fiercely in the war disagreed, insisting that no one could be aligned with both sides – otherwise, why had they fought, killed, and even died? So, the council of Beasts and Birds expelled him from both circles; to this day, the Bat flies alone, separated forever from the rest of the Creatures.

Of course, anyone who has taken a biology course knows that the Bat is a mammal, not a bird, but fables, with their talking animals and ever-present demigods, do not need to be biologically accurate to teach us their lessons. So, I have shifted the original narrative – where the bat is a coward who switches sides based on who is winning the battle – to fit the cautionary lesson upon the dangers of black and white, all or nothing, Manichean thinking.

This limited worldview is found in totalist groups and abusive relationships. One is either part of the elect or of the damned, with us or against us, part of the solution or part of the problem. This habit of thinking can follow survivors of such groups and relationships into their lives after they escape: those who still believe in the group’s teachings while speaking out against the abuses of the leadership are viewed with suspicion and even animosity by those who have yet to shed the belief system completely – and vice versa: there are angry people in every camp. Sometimes, cliques of survivors create circles every bit as isolationist as the cults they have escaped: if you are friends with this other survivor we don’t like, then you cannot be part of our club, and are every bit as evil as the cult we have escaped.

Shunning has become a practice: ignore, rather than persuade. Those still in the group are stripped of their human worth, demonized and treated as vermin. Anyone who disagrees with the opinions of how the “mother cult” should be treated are labeled enemies. Just as in the cult, there is only right vs. wrong, us vs. them, evil vs. good. And those survivors still caught up in cult-think will show the same hostility to those still in that they once felt to disbelievers.

Even those whose lives have never been shadowed by a coercive relationship often fall into this habit: this politician can do no good, that celebrity can do no bad. All the followers of this faith are evil, anyone who belongs to our club must be protected at all costs. Too often, the heuristic “shortcuts” we use to make sense of our world become intellectual crutches at best, and thought-stopping straitjackets at worst. Once the disease of all-or-nothing categorization sinks in, even the most rational and compassionate of us can ignore the humanity of millions with a single, thought-stopping phrase.

However, human experience and opinion is much richer and more diverse than the binary, limited choices offered in a black and white setting. Just as we can have flying mammals and flightless birds, we can have people who agree that an abusive group is harmful, but do not agree with us on what to do about the group or even the nature of the harm. Polarized, binary, black-and-white, Manichean thinking is not only a hallmark of an abusive group, it is also a mental trap facing all of us. It is up to each of us to be aware of polarizing attitudes, and remember that, most of the time, the answer is not one extreme or the other, but a middle path of moderation and acceptance of differing opinions. There is no value in simply dominating other people; to be wise, we have to talk and we have to consider facts – from both “sides” of any question. And, as Isaiah Berlin said, we should be intolerant of intolerance.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about all-or-nothing thinking that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

Ah Po and the Perils of Only One Right Answer

Many years ago, in a tiny farming village in ancient China, there lived a widow and her only child, a son, named Ah Po. Sometimes, Ah Po thought his name was Ai Ya Ah Po, because his mother was always addressing him that way (“Ai ya!” was the local phrase for “Oy Vey!” or “Oh, dear!”). “Ai ya, Ah Po!” she would groan, rolling her eyes. For as much as she loved her son, the poor lad never seemed to be able to do anything right.

It wasn’t that he meant to do wrong, oh no! And it wasn’t that the lad wasn’t clever; he was able to add and subtract sums and he remembered everything he was told. And that was the problem – he remembered everything he was told. Desperately trying to do the right thing, he would remember some piece of advice his mother gave him, and then – well…

The real trouble all started on a hot summer day. After he’d tipped over the very last but one water jug in the house, Ah Po’s mother sent him with two of the least breakable jugs to the river to collect more, suggesting that he could take his time.

By the time he got to the river, Ah Po was drenched in sweat, so he stripped off his clothes and jumped into the chilly water. While he was splashing around cooling himself off, a thief came along and stole the water jugs and his clothes. Before Ah Po could reach the shore, the thief had disappeared.

As Ah Po stood wondering what to do, he heard a dreadful racket coming down the road in the opposite direction: cymbals clanged, and drums boomed over the sound of wails of grief. Then, around the bend came the source of the noise: a funeral procession, with the relatives of the deceased dressed in white, and a white silk cloth draped over the casket upon the shoulders of the pall-bearers. From the finery of the trappings, he could tell that this was the funeral of a very rich man indeed.

Remembering something he had heard his mother say about dressing well to impress people of high status, he tried to cover his nakedness, and, looking around for something suitable, dove forward and grabbed the white silk off the top of the casket, wrapping it around himself before turning to address the funeral party.

He only got as far as “I…” before some of the larger members of the group chased him away with blows and curses.

He arrived at his mother’s doorstep a half hour later, bruised and battered. While she patched him up, he related his tale, and she shook her head sadly. “Ai ya, Ah Po!” she sighed. “Those people would not have cared that you were naked; you should have shown your respect by offering your deepest sympathies to them.”

Ah Po nodded wisely. “I should have offered my sympathies. I’ll be sure to remember,” he groaned, rubbing the lump on his head.

The next week, there was a wedding in the village, and Ah Po stopped on his errands to see the spectacle: the people in all their finery, and the bridal party clad in scarlet and gold. He managed to see the bride and the groom very closely indeed, for the pillar he was leaning against was right at front of the temple. As the bridal couple reached the threshold, they looked straight at him, and Ah Po felt he ought to say something. He remembered his mother’s advice.

He bowed solemnly. “May I offer you both my deepest sympathies,” he intoned.

Half an hour later, he was stumbling back to his mother, who nursed his wounds and clucked her tongue as she heard his tale of woe. “Ai ya, Ah Po!” she cried bitterly. “That was a wedding! They had all their family and friends gathered round – you should have said ‘congratulations’, or even ‘good luck!’ Ah, well, my son. Go to bed; tomorrow is another day.”

Tomorrow, indeed, saw a change of fortune in the village: at some point during the nuptial revels, an intoxicated guest had set off a firework that had fallen on dry thatch, and several houses had caught fire. All the friends and family of the new couple were gathered together in the square, organizing a bucket chain to douse the flames. Ah Po, seeing them, remembered what his mother had said.

“Congratulations!” he shouted at them, waving excitedly. He jumped up and down, smiling cheerfully. “The best of luck to you!”

Once the flames were extinguished, several of the wedding guests looked as if they were going to extinguish Ah Po too – he made a run for it, but it was a close call, and he arrived home short of breath and trembling in fear.

“AI YA, Ah Po!” his mother groaned. “What did you expect? They were about to lose their possessions, and someone might have been hurt, or even died! That’s no time to stand back wishing them luck – you should have helped throw water on the fire!”

Ah Po nodded wisely, tucking this latest bit of advice away for later. However, the next day, by the time he had tried this tactic at the baker’s, the rotisserie, and the blacksmith’s shop, he barely escaped with his skin intact.

His mother, hearing of this latest mishap, shook her head. “Those fires were under control and part of those peoples’ work!” she told him sternly. “Instead of just diving in, stop and watch – see what the others are doing, and then do as they do.”

“That makes sense,” he mumbled faintly; that blacksmith had been particularly angry, and Ah Po’s poor head was still spinning as he went to bed.

The next morning, he chanced upon a group of younger boys, who were having a brawl, kicking and punching each other. Ah Po watched them, carefully, to see what they were doing…

“Ai ya, Ah Po!” his mother howled, after bailing him out of jail the next morning. “Beating up seven little boys! How could you?!?”

“But they –”

Enough, Ah Po! Could you not see they were hurting each other?”

“Well, yes, but you said –”

“NO, Ah Po! You should have gotten in between them, stopped them from their – oh, it doesn’t matter! I think you should stay away from the village. Just don’t go near any people, and maybe, just maybe, we can keep you out of trouble.”

So, the next day, Ah Po walked far away from the village, out to the meadow where the farmers kept their young bulls. Two of the larger ones were fighting: lowering their heads, they stampeded towards each other, banging their skulls together with a sickening THUD, then, stumbling, retreating, and repeating the whole thing again. And again.

Ah Po watched. They were clearly hurting each other…. Coming to a decision, he approached the center of the field, directly between the contenders. The next time they prepared for a stampede, he stood right in their path, his arms outstretched, prepared to prevent them from colliding.

“STOP!!!!” he shouted. And then they slammed into him.

Ah Po’s spirit flew out of his body, and flitted away upon the wind. To this day he blows around the world, mussing peoples’ hair, tipping peoples’ hats off their heads, and tearing important pieces of paper away from the people they are important to. Even as a ghost, Ah Po could never do the right thing at the right time.


This Chinese folktale, usually retold for its humorous notes, also holds a deeply meaningful message: we can absorb as much wisdom as we like, but unless we are able to think for ourselves and understand not only what to do, but why we do it, then we are helpless when circumstances shift and the very action that would have saved us yesterday would only destroy us today. Many dangerous, high-control groups have a “cookie-cutter” approach to the problems of life – do these courses, follow this scripture, or recite this chant, and everything will be better. No matter what happens, all you have to do is follow the instructions.

The bottom line is that the panacea – the cure-all – is a myth. It is only when our minds are open to all possibilities – that we can assess a situation and find the best course of action for that circumstance – or, at least, the course of action that won’t result in the rest of your village getting angry at you. Autonomy means being able to understand a situation and make your own decision.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this fable? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about only one “right answer” that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

The Mare and the Stable-Boy: the Deceptive Appearances of Undue Influence

A stable-boy, knowing that the master of the house liked everything to look clean and orderly, made sure that the carriage-horse, a beautiful dappled mare, always looked her best. He brushed her coat until it gleamed, combed and braided her mane and tail with colorful ribbons, and even oiled her hooves until they shone.

However, when it came to her diet and bedding, he fed her mostly on old hay, with only a smattering of oats, and would not clean out her stall properly, but piled fresh straw on top of the soiled, so that she would often have to stand in her own refuse. Similarly, although he polished the silver fittings of her carriage-harness until they gleamed in the sunlight, he ignored the parts he knew would not be seen, so a rusty buckle scraped her belly and brittle, stiff leather chafed her inner legs. When the master was around, the stable-boy became a flurry of activity, bustling from task to task, and paying the mare much attention, patting her nose and feeding her sugar, but when they were left alone, the boy loafed and napped, ignoring her completely.

Inevitably, the poor beast fell ill, and the veterinarian, seeing the true condition of the mare right away, told the master of the house just how matters stood, and why. The lad was summarily dismissed; passing through the stable door for the last time, he cursed his bad fortune for losing his place.

The mare admonished him: “It was not your bad fortune, but your own bad actions, that are responsible for your departure. For surely, had you cared for me properly, rather than just being seen to be caring for me, you would still have your place – and I would still have my health.”

One of the hallmarks of an abusive relationship or group is the “double life” led while in the grip of undue influence. From a battered spouse fabricating a story to explain the bruises, to a high-pressure organization covering up the sexual abuse of children (and doing nothing to change the policies that ensure continued, unchecked, abuse) – the picture presented to the outside world must be rosy. Predators are skilled at putting forward a charming veneer and will gaslight their victims into following suit. Appearances are everything: the neighbors mustn’t suspect that there has been an argument, and reporting abuse to the proper authorities becomes an act of betrayal to the group – and by extension, all the group stands for.

When groups or individuals spend more time and energy maintaining their good reputations than they do working to deserve a good reputation, then they have crossed over the line into dishonesty and manipulation. It is important for those practicing healthy skepticism to look beneath the “window dressing” of any situation – and critically assess the actual, rather than the promised, results.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about deceptive appearances that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 



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