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Do you ever notice when you are dealing with a difficult situation that you know the right way to behave, or the way you would like to react, but you still do or say something else, something you may regret later? Why does it happen? The most obvious explanation is: because this is who we are. If we know we are not usually a kind person, or a patient person, or an outgoing person, then we don’t act it. And since our happiness depends a lot on our own behavior, then our self-identity is a deciding factor is how happy we feel.
Is there anything we can do to go around our own personality and self-identity?
There is a wise Jewish fairy tale that addresses this question.
Once there was a prince who thought he was a rooster. He spent his days sitting naked under a table in his room, refusing to eat anything except birdseed. The prince’s best friend tried to coax him from under the table to play. But the prince refused to even look at him. The prince’s favorite tutor came to talk reason with the boy and read a book to him. But the prince only turned his head to one side and cried, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” The king and the queen were distraught. They announced a reward for anyone who could cure their son.
Many people came, tried, and failed. The prince thought he was a rooster, and that was it. One day, an old man called Ezra arrived at the palace and said that he could cure the prince in a week.
|Art by Art Spiegelman|
As soon as he was inside the room, Ezra took off all his clothes, crawled under the table next to the prince, and began to peck at the floor. “I am a rooster too,” he said to the surprised prince. After three days sitting under the table together, pecking the birdseed, and shouting, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” they became great friends.
On the fourth day, Ezra put his cloths back on. “What are you doing?” protested the prince. “You are a rooster like me, and roosters do not wear clothes. Take them off!”
“Even though I am a rooster,” Ezra told the prince, “I prefer to wear clothes. That way I don’t feel so cold as I sit on the floor. You can do whatever you like, but this rooster is more comfortable in clothes.”
The prince thought for a while and then slowly crawled from under the table and put on his own clothes.
The next morning, the prince was pecking away at the birdseed on the floor as he and Ezra did every morning. This morning, though, Ezra fetched the breakfast tray that the palace servants had left outside the door, as they did every morning. Ezra put some food on a plate, brought it back under the table, and began to eat it.
“What are you doing?” cried the prince. “Roosters eat birdseed, not scrambled eggs and toast. That is people food, and you are a rooster. Put it back!”
But Ezra continued to enjoy the food. “I am a rooster, just like you. But roosters are free to eat whatever food they like. If you prefer the taste of birdseed, then by all means, continue to eat birdseed. But I like eggs and toast and all sorts of other foods.”
The prince thought about it and picked some food from the tray. They spent the rest of the day as usual, sitting under the table and shouting, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” But whenever a meal arrived, they brought it under the table and shared the food.
The next morning, instead of bringing the food back under the table to eat, Ezra sat on a chair at the table. After he had eaten, Ezra began to walk around the room instead of crouching under the table.
“What are you doing now?” the prince asked suspiciously. “How can you be a rooster if you eat your meals at the table and walk upright like a man?”
“Just because I am a rooster does not mean I cannot sit or move around comfortably. Is there any reason why a rooster cannot do that if he prefers it?”
“I suppose not,” the prince mumbled after taking some time to think about it. And he too sat down at the table to eat his breakfast.
That day, instead of spending his time yelling, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” Ezra turned to the prince and asked, “The Sabbath begins this evening. How do you think we should celebrate it? Even though I am a rooster, I prefer to spend my Sabbath praying to God, sharing a fine meal, studying the words of the Torah, and being with my family. Would you like to join me?”
|Art by Amanda Hall|
There was a long silence. Then the prince said quietly, “I am still a rooster. But I would like to celebrate together with my family.”
When the king and the queen came to the room at the end of the week, the prince walked over and hugged them.
“This is remarkable!” the king exclaimed as he hugged his son in return. “How did you manage it?” he asked, turning to Ezra.
“Nothing has changed,” answered Ezra. “Your son is your son. He always has been and always will be. He’s still the same inside. The only thing that is different is the way he behaves. All I taught him is that God gives human beings the ability to make choices. No matter how we feel on the inside, we can choose to behave better than we feel.”[i]
Just like the young prince, we tend to speak and act in ways that are consistent with our self-image. If we believe we cannot do something, we can’t. If we believe we can do anything, we can. And if we believe we are happy, we are.
Even the Talmud says that God only leads a person along the path that the person wishes to follow[ii].
That is why only the fairytale prince himself had the power to change his thinking, behavior, and perception of his life. Ezra only helped to allow himself to make the choice to do so.
Whatever our personality is and whatever we believe we are, we can control our behavior (and thoughts) if we choose to. You may think you are frugal, but give to the charity. Or you may know that you are strict, but act kindly in some a situation. Or you may believe that you are not very cheerful, but still find joy in life and make yourself happy!
More practical tips on how to become happy here: http://goo.gl/LNLUrd
Happiness the Jewish Way:
A Practical Guide to Happiness
Through the Lens of Jewish Wisdom
[i] Adapted from Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, “The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster”, The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales (Concord, MA: Barefoot Books, 2013).
[ii] The Talmud, Makkot, 10b