Once upon a time, the country was in trouble, and a shoemaker and his wife fell upon hard times. Then came the day when the shoemaker found he had enough leather for only one more pair of shoes. He did not despair, though, but got to work, cut the leather carefully, and started to sew. When evening fell, the single pair of shoes was still unfinished; and, as it was time for dinner, he put his work to the side and went home, intending, in the morning, to pick up where he left off.
What he found the following day astounded him: the new pair of shoes completed, so expertly made that there was not one bad stitch he could see. Far better made than any of his. Soon enough, the new shoes were sold, and the cobbler had enough money to buy leather for two more pairs.
He spent the rest of the day cutting the material. When evening arrived, he put his work to the side and went home for dinner, intending, in the morning, to pick up where he left off.
Waiting for him this time were four pairs of shoes! The mysterious helper or helpers had come again! The shoes were even finer than the first ones. They quickly sold, allowing the cobbler to buy enough leather for eight shoes. As before, he spent the day cutting the material, and when evening came, he put his work to the side and went home. Next day, there were 16 shoes of all varieties and kinds, arranged neatly in his shop.
This kept on for some time. Each night, the cobbler left pieces of leather out in his workshop. Each morning, he found beautiful shoes, in rapidly increasing numbers. Very soon the shoemaker prospered, despite the troubling times, and his reputation for marvelous shoes spread far and wide.
One day, near Christmastime, the shoemaker said to his wife, “We must find out who is helping us, so we can thank them!” His wife agreed. That evening, they hid in the workshop, and waited. Right around midnight, the shoemaker and his wife heard singing, and saw two elves leap through the open window. The elves were naked as the dawn, barefoot and carefree. They sat down and immediately started making shoes and boots, and the cobbler and his wife were amazed at how joyful they were at their work. They sang constantly and at times would suddenly get up and dance, or do a somersault. In no time at all, they finished their work, skipped around the room and vanished on a moonbeam, leaving behind them more than a thousand expertly made shoes.
The shoemaker and his wife could scarcely believe their eyes. Their mysterious helpers had been magical elves! As one they agreed that they must give them a gift, to thank them for their kindness. Since it was winter, and the elves were naked, the shoemaker and his wife assumed that clothes would be the perfect gift. The shoemaker stitched two tiny pairs of boots, lined with fir, while his wife sewed two tiny jackets and two pairs of pants, fleecy and warm.
On Christmas Eve, they laid out the gifts in the workshop, then hid themselves and watched. At midnight, the two elves leapt through the window, and they looked around in bewilderment. Where was the leather for them to sew? Where were the tools to use? But then they saw the gifts. “Ooh!” exclaimed one elf, as he picked up a tiny shoe and tried it on. “Ahh!” cried the other one, as he squirmed into a shirt and coat. The clothes fit perfectly. The elves admired each other as they danced with glee, then vanished into the moonlight. The shoemaker and his wife were delighted, and went to bed as happy as they could be.
The next evening, the elves did not return. Nor the night after, or ever again. “What have we done?” cried the shoemaker and his wife. But they were practical people, so the cobbler got right to work. He did not despair. He studied the work of the elves very closely, and with practice, the quality of his shoes got better and better. He also found himself growing into a habit of singing while he worked, just like the elves. In time, he was making shoes as beautiful as theirs. This is how he and his wife lived happily ever after.
So ends “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” A fairy tale—a piece of fiction—yet like all good fiction, it tells the truth about the human situation in a profound and memorable way. “The pitcher cries for water to carry,” says poet Marge Piercy; “the person [cries] for work that is real.” In a language of imagination and symbol, our story today is about this cry. It explores essential issues in the spirituality of work: coming to terms with the realities of everyday life; learning how to tap into inner creativity; learning how to fulfill our deep desire to bless the world.
These are issues that have everything to do with growing our souls and growing good in the larger world.
It all starts with shoes. Psychiatrist Allan Chinen, in his fascinating book called Once Upon a Midlife: Classic Stories and Mythic Tales to Illuminate the Middle Years, takes special note of the fact that the protagonist of the story is someone who is married and has learned a practical trade. This marks it as very different from tales like Hansel and Gretel or Tom Thumb, in which the themes are clearly youth-oriented. He calls “The Elves and the Shoemaker” a “middle tale,” one which focuses on the tasks and challenges of growing into maturity. “Behind the divine inspiration of youth,” he says, “lies an image of perfection—the hope of establishing a perfect society, playing a perfect game, finding a perfect love. Innocent and inspired, young [people] assume that perfection is possible. Experience with the real world eventually shatters that dream…. Young [people] surrender the idols and ideals of youth, and settle for doing what is good enough.” As we age, in other words, we become shoemakers—but not of the kind of shoes that serve youthful fantasies of transporting people to distant lands, like seven-league boots, or Dorothy’s ruby red slippers in The Wizard of Oz. Growing up is about making shoes that ground us in the real and rough world of here and now, with all the commitment and hard work that’s required. Shoes comfortable for long hours of standing or walking. Shoes durable enough to weather lots of wear and tear. Shoes made to get dirty.
Growing up is about a willingness to wear these kind of shoes and to live in the kind of world that requires them. That’s what the shoemaker in the story represents. He’s the symbol of that.
Around every time this year, when we enter into our annual pledge drive, each of us is being invited to be like the shoemaker. To join in the work of crafting shoes for this community that will serve its real-world mission well. To read the pledge brochure coming to you in the mail, participate in conversations, fill in the pledge form, take the time and effort to figure out all that stuff. It’s gritty, there’s detail involved, but it’s the work of the shoemaker, to make shoes that will serve our common life well.
No one else will do this for us.
It’s up to us.
But opposed to this (not just to pledging but to living in general) is the fantasy that things shouldn’t require grit and hard work and personal sacrifice. A moment ago we heard psychiatrist Allan Chinen call this a youth orientation. Another mental health expert, Dr. Dan Kiley, calls it “Peter Pan Syndrome.” Peter Pan Syndrome is all about a quest for perpetual ease and fun. A quest for relationships that are for good times only, and so when hard times come, we drop them and look for others. A tendency to see oneself as exempt from the rules and exempt from criticism. An inability to make promises and fulfill them. A desire to enjoy the common good but to do nothing or not much yourself to contribute to that common good.
Peter Pan Syndrome is so destructive in our personal lives, in this congregation, and in the larger world.
Just look at what happened in Texas, in the wake of last week’s deadly winter storm. The Texan fantasy of go-it-alone energy independence, coupled with deregulation and a commitment to generating lowest costs and highest profits. Texas Governor Greg Abbott blaming frozen wind turbines and green energy but that’s a pathetic lie meant to cover up and distract from the real issue of greed and incompetence. He’s like Wendy to the Peter Pan idea of small government and deregulation and padding the pockets of the ultra rich—enabling the fantasy.
Senator Ted Cruz escaping via flight to Cancun while all this was unfolding was Peter Pan literally.
Meanwhile there were mass power outages, water and food shortages, and the suffering of 4.2 million people and at least 32 deaths.
That part is decidedly no fantasy.
But let’s get back to the shoemaker. The shoemaker is no Peter Pan. Perhaps the most telling example of this is how he responds, in the story, to economic adversity. With just enough leather to make only one more pair of shoes, you’d think he’d just stop trying, step back, collapse in despair. Fly up in the air, like a Peter Pan, away from the problem. How is one pair of shoes going to solve anything? What difference is that going to make? But he doesn’t give into the fantasy that life should be easy. He doesn’t give into that. He knows what we heard Vicky talk about earlier, in her reflection. The shoemaker is grounded in an acceptance of real life. That’s what being a shoemaker symbolizes.
He’s like the Texans on the ground, who showed up for each other, who helped each other survive.
He’s like us, how we as a congregation have stayed Connected and Committed despite the pandemic and social distancing and everything.
The wonderful irony in all of this is that, by refusing to give into Peter Pan fantasy–by dutifully starting on that last pair of shoes–the shoemaker invites magic into his world. Elves come in. Isn’t that paradoxical—and wonderful?
Hard work in the real world leads to magic. Someone who has great things to say about this is Barbara Sher. She is a therapist and career counselor, widely known for such books as Wishcraft and I Could Do Anything (If I Only Knew What It Was), and one thing she likes to tell people when they are facing adversity in their worklife is this: “good luck happens when you are in action.” Don’t allow Peter Pan fantasies of perfection to make you stop caring about your life here and now. Keep moving, keep going, put yourself out there. She says, “If you go to the library and look up articles, call people, join organizations, go to appointments, [volunteer at your congregation!], something can happen to you. Try it. Set a goal, any goal, and start doing everything you can to think of achieving it. You might not get where you thought you were going, but you could easily wind up somewhere better. You’ll get breaks you never could have planned for because you never knew they existed.” That’s what Barbara Sher says. “Good luck happens when you are in action.” The elves will come, if you can accept your life here and now and bring yourself to face, with courage, the last piece of leather you have.
Maybe you can’t see yourself pledging much to West Shore this year. I get it. But every pledge counts. Every pledge. I promise you, when we all step up in whatever capacity we can, magic comes next.
Which takes us directly to the next spirituality of work issue: tapping into inner creativity. When it happens, work is uniquely fulfilling and productive. So how do we do that? How do we tap in?
The story illustrates that there can definitely be a vital partnership between our socially-approved conscious selves and our dancing, singing, somersaulting, naked creative depths. If the shoemaker works hard to prepare the leather each day, then he has something to hand off to the elves, who complete the work at night. If he stops, they stop. All he has to do is get things started in a particular direction, and then hand off.
The picture is true to life, although things are more complex and involve lots more drama. I like how writer Anne Lamott suggests this, in her wonderful book entitled Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. To the question of how she writes her stories and novels, she says, “you sit down. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on your computer and bring up the right file….” In other words, the process begins with preparation. You have to purchase the leather and cut it, get it ready for sewing. Set the stage the same time every day, invite the elves to get to work, and then let it happen. Don’t force it. The gift must come to you, like grace.
It means that you—the conscious self you—has got to get out of your own way, and this is actually very difficult. Because right on the heels of the preparation phase of the creative process comes the frustration and messiness phase. “You are desperate,” says Anne Lamott, “to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen.” Desperation must contain itself, desperation must calm itself, yet at the same time it must still want a result, it can’t become complacent—and in this is a kind of insanity. You turn on your computer, says Anne Lamott, “and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge … child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised at the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind—a scene, a locale, a character, whatever—and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what the landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also hypochondria. […] There is a vague pain at the base of your neck. It crosses your mind that you have meningitis. Then the phone rings and you look up at the ceiling with fury, summon every ounce of noblesse oblige, and answer the call politely, with maybe just the merest hint of irritation. The caller asks if you’re working, and you say yeah, because you are.” That’s Anne Lamott.
She’s right—you are working.
Creativity is like walking the razor’s edge. It starts with a conscious desire to say something or solve a problem or see something in a new light, leading to a hand-off to the unconscious. In other words, the conscious ego wants to get somewhere but it’s got to hang back from trying to control the process of getting there. That’s the razor’s edge right there. And it’s an uncomfortable place to be, full of uncertainty and anxiety and voices of judgment and guilt and perhaps even doom.
Which is why temptation comes. The working partnership between the conscious ego and the unconscious creative depths is so challenging, that temptation naturally comes. It’s the conscious ego that’s tempted—to try to bypass the discomfort, control the whole process, make it less unpredictable, less messy.
Remember when the shoemaker and his wife gave gifts to the elves, because they thought those elves would like to be appreciated, and also because they were naked in wintertime? This is where the story speaks to the issue of temptation. That’s what that part of the story is about. The shoemaker and his wife here represent our conscious selves succumbing to the temptation to domesticate our dancing, singing, somersaulting, naked unconscious creativity. To domesticate it. To cover up its nakedness, tone down its wildness, try remaking the elves in their own image—insofar as they as humans presume to think that what the elves need is similar to what they need.
Everything changes, when the shoemaker and his wife succumb to temptation and give those gifts.
It’s Peter Pan again, diverting us from real work. It’s the ego’s fantasy that creativity should proceed on predictable terms, that we should be able to produce poems or papers or projects or solutions effortlessly. Always get it right the first time. “People,” say Anne Lamott, “tend to look at successful writers and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.”
That’s the kind fantasy we can fall into, about anything, and so, when the writing or whatever it happens to be ends up feeling like pulling teeth and the first draft is triple dog drat horrible—what then? The voice of the inner critic, getting louder and louder. I know you know that voice. The voice of anxiety, shame, condemnation. Wow, that sucked. What do you call that? People are gonna think you are an idiot.
The end result is paralysis. Or, I should say, the beginning result. Because this is the kind of unhealthy thinking that prevents people from acting in the first place. It is what is behind that ancient complaint in families and businesses and congregations when change comes knocking on the door: If you don’t get it right the first time, people say, or imply, then don’t do it at all. No mistakes allowed. Or the corollary: We’ve never done it like that before.
The Peter Pan fantasy of perfectionism. Creativity puts us face to face with it because it is a journey that moves us through realms of messiness, to the cliff’s edge, and if we are going to go any further, if we are going get to the other side, where the inspired solution to an old problem waits for us—beautiful new shoes, in increasing numbers—then we must let go and let God and take the leap of faith and jump.
But I don’t want to be too hard on the shoemaker and his wife. While it is true that, from one angle of vision, we can see the act of giving the clothes to the elves as succumbing to temptation and ultimately unhelpful, there is yet another, more positive angle of vision to consider. In other fairy tales—youth tales in particular—the protagonists lose the magic because they’ve been greedy or wicked; but here, the shoemaker and his wife lose the magic because they intend to do a good thing. Maybe there is a shadow side to their motivation, but we can’t ignore their clear generosity and gratitude. So, here we have a puzzle: the shoemaker and his wife do a good thing but they lose the magic anyway.
What can explain it?
Above all, what in real life might this part of the fairy tale be referring to?
This brings us to the last issue of the spirituality of work that the fairy tale speaks to: our deep natural desire to be a blessing to the world. In this respect, psychiatrist Allan Chinen makes the key observation: “Husband and wife lose their magic when they shift from receiving gifts to giving them.” And then he says: “This is a good measure of when youth ends and maturity begins. Modern psychology corroborates these fairy tale insights. Erik Erikson was one of the first psychoanalysts to explore adult development [and he discovered that] the fundamental issue for the middle of life is developing generativity. This is a nurturing attitude directed first toward one’s children, and then towards the whole next generation…” In other words, from this more positive perspective, the shoemaker has not so much lost magic as he is growing into his own magic, and thus we see him at the end of the story, learning to make shoes as fine as any the elves created. As he works away, maybe he is not doing any somersaults, or dancing, but he starts singing just as the elves sang, he sings as he works, and that’s how he lives happily ever after.
Let me say that again: the shoemaker by story’s end has not lost the magic; he is just growing into his own….
That’s what I want for all of us. A happily-ever-after of growing into our own capacity for magic. Our real spiritual work is not just about giving up Peter Pan fantasies and showing up for life, or learning how to be in creative partnership with our inner depths, but also this: paying attention to our steadily increasing hunger to bless the world. This is the magic. What Erikson calls generativity is the magic. It’s when giving stops becoming just a nice thing to do. Magic is when giving becomes the sort of thing you do because that’s what brings your life meaning.
You give, not because it’s good for others, but because it saves your life.
You are the one being saved by your giving.
That’s the magic.
From this perspective, I hope you see that when West Shore invites you to make an annual pledge, it is not trying to force your hand to do something you don’t want to do. We’re not trying to take anything away from you that will leave you less safe and less of a person. Instead, West Shore is offering you a way to fulfill the deep call of your soul for significance. West Shore is going to put your money is service to lovingkindness and, in this way, you will literally impact thousands now and generations to come.
“What we do for ourselves dies with us, but what we do for others and the world remains immortal” (Albert Pine). “We have not lived until we have done something for someone who can never repay us” (Anonymous).
This is magic.
There’s a story of a man who died and found himself in a beautiful place, surrounded by every conceivable comfort. A white-jacketed attendant came to him and said, “You may have anything you choose—any food—any pleasure—any kind of entertainment.” The man was delighted, and for days he sampled all the delicacies and experiences he had dreamed about while alive. But finally one day he grew tired of all this. “I need something to do. What kind of work can you give me?” The attendant sadly shook his head and said, “I’m sorry, sir. That’s the one thing we can’t do for you. There is no work here for you.” To which the man said, “Well, that’s just great. I might as well be in hell.” Softly, the attendant replied, “Where do you think you are?”
For you, I hope for heaven.
For you, I hope for a happy-ever-after of real work.
Finding it in this place and elsewhere.
Experiencing the real, this-world magic of creativity and generativity.
Growing the magic that is already there in yourself.
Giving as your way of feeling on a deep soul level good.
I hope this for me, for you, and for us all.
A truly happy ever after.