Perception post: Breaking Wood

blog post

“…Superheroes are almost always represented as lone wolves: out in the darkest hours of the night, protecting the city they call home, concealing their identity behind a thick mask and, most importantly, accomplishing everything alone. They can break all three wooden sticks alone.”

I came across a thought-provoking Czechoslovakian folk tale recently. It was about a father, on his deathbed, who wanted to give his sons an important lesson before his passing. He gave each son two wooden sticks and told them to take one of the two and break it. They all did. Then, he told them to give the remaining sticks they had to each brother in turn so they could attempt to break three at the same time. One by one, they all gave it a go. And one by one, they all failed.

His message was clear: when divided, you are weak and vulnerable, but in unity, you are strong, impenetrable even. As long as the brothers stuck together, they would always find peace and security. This was the final lesson he left with them – and rightly so – because it was probably the most important one; let’s just say the end for the three sons in the folk tale wasn’t particularly good…

It seems to me that regardless of the undeniable importance of unity and working together, most popular culture – which has a way of sinking into our minds and gently influencing our perceptions – that I’ve been exposed to doesn’t reflect this. In fact, most of the time the ‘goodies’ in popular literature, films and media are represented as working alone; the people who are able to single-handedly take on the world and all of its bads on their bare shoulders, either kindly refusing the help of others or simply possessing skills and powers so great that nobody else is required.

Superheroes are almost always represented as lone wolves: out in the darkest hours of the night, protecting the city they call home, concealing their identity behind a thick mask and, most importantly, accomplishing everything alone. They can break all three wooden sticks alone. And in many ways, after years of growing up whilst watching them do so, I began to think that I had to find a way to achieve that formidable task myself. Or perhaps I wasn’t able to see any other way. If I wanted to overcome negativity, I had to become a stronger person alone. If I wanted to acquire new skills and experiences, I had to learn them alone. If I wanted success, I had to accomplish it alone. 

But, now, this frame of mind is seeming more and more flawed to me. We live in a world where the actions of others are inevitably and profoundly going to have an impact on us, and vice versa. We are not isolated islands, nor can we hope to be. If we unite with others with good intentions, they will only become more effective and robust. This may sound simple enough, however, in all honesty, the connectedness that links me to other people is something that both fascinates and scares me, with a greater fraction taken by the latter.

I am an independent and introverted person. I feel as though, in many ways, I always have been. So this task of letting others help me, or allowing them greater space in my life as a means of collectively achieving greater things, is something that is out of my comfort zone. Perhaps this is something that has become a part of me as a result of the life I have lived in one of the busiest cities in the world – London – which is highly privatised and individualistic whilst also being deeply connected and flowing in on itself and also to all other corners of the world.

Now, I want to choose unity, collective thought, combined action: it only makes ideas more brilliant, actions more fruitful and existence more beautiful. I want to feel the comfort one feels at knowing their wood is strong and thus safe from hands that may want to break it; and I want to remind myself that when challenging tasks arise, I don’t have to break my wood alone. I want to choose the brave option; I want to lower my walls to people – with the knowledge that, yes, they could hurt and deceive and break me – and choose to believe in the gracious, nurturing and pure human spirit I desperately crave to believe in and experience. Because, after all, it’s too clear to see the wise old man was right: alone we are limited, united we are invincible.

Anam Iqbal 

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