A couple of evenings ago, my younger brother sent me a question via a text and I immediately knew the answer to what he was asking. “Why”, he asked, “is the ocean salty?” I didn’t know his whereabouts, nor did I know why he had picked this moment to ask me that question, but I knew what he wanted. I was positive that he didn’t want me to head to Google to find a true and correct scientific reason why the ocean is salty.
I was curious, however. I wanted to know whether he was in the middle of a family discussion about poverty versus wealth or in a discussion about what should be the wishes in our lives. I wanted to know if he was looking for a way to convey a message about empathy, about selflessness or maybe hunger. Still, I didn’t ask the circumstance of his request. It really wasn’t important to know his reason for asking. It was more important for me to respond.
He and I, along with three other brothers and one sister, grew up with an array of folks moving in and out of our family home. Grandparents, cousins, aunts, friends came and went. And these individuals brought with them all types of fascinating personalities, interesting behaviors, and memorable moments. Oddly enough, one strength they all had – (as if it were an unwritten requirement of my parents to move into the house) – was the ability to tell a story. And in particular, it was my Grandma Polly who did so with regularity, precision, and looking back on it, perfection.
She told her stories at very unusual moments – while helping us dry the dishes, while playing card games with us, while walking to church, while waiting in line by the sink to brush our teeth – mainly while we were a captive audience. And she told the same stories over and over and over – so much so that most of us know them by the funky names we assigned to them. So when my brother asked me if I knew why the ocean was salty, I did. It was one of my grandmother’s most famous and most favorite stories.
What I did learn from his question and my later answer, however, was that storytelling isn’t a lost art, a thing of the past. In fact, with all the technology the world offers us today, storytelling is most likely in its golden era. People can tell stories using blogs, through email, by telephone or video, in print, via the U.S. mail, and, of course, in person. Storytelling can convey those unwritten and complicated rules of life in a simple, unassuming, and understandable fashion. It’s easy. It’s simple. And for some reason, storytelling has the uncanny ability to leave an indelible impression on the listeners. I know it did for me.
So, without hesitation, I began to text the story back to my brother – in fifty character segments:
A long time ago, before the world was known, there was an old woman who was hungry and poor.
She came upon a family who had everything they needed and wanted. She asked them for food and drink to save her life.
They looked at her, sneered and said, “Old woman, why should we help you? What can you do for us?”
She said, “I am old and poor, but I still have a favor, a wish, remaining that I received many years ago from the wise king and queen of my village. I have saved this last wish and I can give it to you.”
They laughed at her and said, “If you have a wish remaining, then why don’t you wish for food and drink for yourself?”
She lowered her head and whispered, “Wishes are never meant to be used to save yourself. They are meant to be used to help others. So I would never wish for something for me.”
“Well”, the family who had everything said in unison, “Then use your wish for us. We would be happy to take your wish for something we want. In return, here is just enough food and drink for you to live.”
So the tired and starving old woman traded her last wish for food and drink; and, she lived a long and productive life for she had learned to share what she had and to be generous and selfless in her actions.
While eating their own supper, the wealthy family talked about the many ways they could use their wish. They could wish for more gold, for more land, and for more possessions. The choices were many.
As the eldest took a bite of the meal of many meats and vegetables their servants had prepared, he pushed back his chair and bellowed a most unhappy sound.
“Bah!” he exclaimed. “This meat may be plenty, but it has poor taste. It has no seasoning, no salt. We need to punish those who prepared it.” And without thinking, he added, “I wish for more salt.”
At that instant, there appeared a salt mill on the banquet table in front of him. Though tiny, it was mighty and it kept grinding and grinding and grinding salt, never ever stopping.
Suddenly, the wealthy family realized that they had used their wish; and, all they were receiving was an endless supply of salt. No gold. No land. No possessions.
They beckoned for the old woman and said, “We order you to make it stop. Make it stop now. And return our wish to us immediately!”
The old woman shook her head as she gazed at the wealthy family. “I am sorry,” she said, “but your wish has been granted. There is nothing I can do. The salt will be a reminder to you that when you wish for something, make sure it is used for the benefit of others and not just for yourself.”
The wealthy family was so angry that they took the salt mill and threw it into the ocean, where it has kept grinding for centuries. To this day, it reminds us to always think of others before ourselves.