There’s a lot to be said about the lessons we adults can learn (or be reminded of) when reading children’s books. And why not? Children’s books teach about kindness and friendships, sharing, caring, exploring, learning. They engage imaginations and open minds to possibilities and wonder.
When we become adults with responsibilities and pressures, we think we have to let go of childish ways in order to survive the real world. Truth be told, so much of those childhood lessons are exactly what we need to live by, but somehow they get lost in yesteryear.
The children’s book that taught me how to act like an adult
When my kids were in daycare, they’d bring home book catalogs. I ordered books for them every single time. I kept the books that I hope to read again to my grandkids one day. But in the meantime, there’s one particular book that I keep at the ready for me.
It’s called Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth (published by Scholastic in 2005). It’s about three siblings who befriend a large panda named Stillwater. While the friends are spending time together, Stillwater tells them stories that relate to everyday life. The stories he’s telling them are actual centuries-old Chinese parables.
Reading the book to my kids, they connected with the children and the large, peaceful bear. I, on the other hand, soaked in the parables. To this day, I still rely on them to help me adjust my perspective when holding too tightly to stress.
The package of panda parables
Here are Stillwater’s three stories and how they continue to help me:
- Uncle Ry and the Moon – Uncle Ry is based on a Sōtō Zen Buddhist monk named Ryōkan Taigu. In the story, Uncle Ry places no value on his material possessions. He values selflessness — putting others’ needs above his own. When a robber comes into his home, Uncle Ry gives him his last possession — his robe. Feeling bad that the robber is in need of things he doesn’t have, Uncle Ry wishes he had something more beautiful to give the robber, like the moon.
Recalling this story helps me when I want to remember that the people in my life are more important to me than the things around me. I rely on Uncle Ry to remind me that people come first and, although we don’t have to literally give people the shirt off our back, helping people who are in need is a basic human kindness.
- The Farmer’s Luck – this Taoist story is probably the most well-known of the three that Stillwater shares. The gist of it is that you can’t tell if luck is good or bad until you see the result of whatever happens next.
A farmer’s horse runs away. Bad luck? It returns with two more horses. Good luck? The farmer’s son breaks one of his legs while trying to tame one of the horses. Bad luck? The army rejects the son as a draftee because of his injury. Good luck?
This story reminds me that you can’t always control what life sends your way, but you can always control how you react to it. You can understand that bad luck doesn’t have to devastate you. You can choose to make the best of it instead. You may end up learning a great lesson because of it, which might mean it was good luck all along.
- A Heavy Load – this is my favorite of Stillwater’s stories. It’s about a young monk who is silently agitated for hours that a woman does not thank his companion, an older monk, for carrying her across a large puddle. In the end, the old monk says to the young one, “I set the woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
I often say to myself (sometimes even out loud), “Put the woman down!” This is when I realize I’ve been stressing over something needlessly — someone or something that’s not worth the time and energy I’m wasting thinking about it. Or something that’s out of my control to change. It’s time to focus on something more meaningful that is within my control.
In (Zen) short…
Those are the three perspectives that have changed my life. Somehow, in this one simple children’s book, I found the remedy to almost any challenge. In short, my options are to:
- Decide how this challenge impacts my relationship with the people I love. Do what I must to preserve them. Other than that, nothing else matters.
- Accept it for what it is and gauge my response in proportion to its relevance in the grand scheme of my life. Over reacting gets me nowhere and is a waste of time and energy.
- When it’s all said and done, leave it behind and move on.
Thanks to this panda and his groovy Zen shorts, I’m able to enjoy life most days with the peace of mind to keep my priorities and perspectives in check. I hope you are able to find this kind of peace within yourself as well.
Thank you for spending these moments with me, thinking about life. If you like what you’ve read, I’d love for you to share it. Spread some seeds…