Long Spoons of Compassion
About 16 years ago, when I was organizing a 'new millennium' community ritual through the Goddess 2000 Project, I happened upon a story called the Allegory of the Long Spoons. I used it to introduce that community ritual, and in the years since then I've told it a number of times to small and large groups. It always touches people, and I think it's an important story to keep telling.
The Allegory of the Long Spoons
Adapted by Laura Perry
This story is usually framed as a vision of “heaven and hell” or some other sort of afterlife experience. But something a person sees in the afterlife doesn’t allow them to bring it back into this world to make changes (at least, not right away, depending on your beliefs) so I’ve shifted the narrative a little. In my version, the vision happens in the dreamtime, à la Ebeneezer Scrooge, so the person can bring their new learning back into the world and share it. And of course, I prefer the Goddess as the teacher character in the tale. Versions of this parable exist in a wide variety of spiritual traditions, from Judaism to the Vedic religions. The story encapsulates a core human value: compassion.
Once there was a man who was unhappy. He had wealth and success but still he felt empty. This emptiness made him angry and he took out his wrath on all those around him. One night as he was going to sleep, he called out angrily to the divine, demanding relief from his emptiness, his pain.
When the man awoke in the dreamworld, he found himself standing in a large hallway. As he looked around the empty space, his anger boiled up. “What use is an empty hallway?” he snarled to himself. Then a figure appeared before him, shrouded in a hooded cloak. But even though he could not see the face, he knew it was the Great Mother standing before him. He trembled a little and tried to think of the right thing to say.
“Do not speak,” the Great Mother said, “but look and listen.”
She waved her hand toward a door and it swung open, revealing a large group of people. He could hear their voices, raised in anger at each other. As he looked more closely, he saw that they were gathered around a big pot full of delicious-smelling stew, yet they were all thin, starving. In each person’s hand was a spoon with which they scooped out the stew, but the spoon handles were so long the people could not eat, no matter how they stretched out their arms. So they were all hungry. And they shouted and snapped at each other, each one blaming the others for their empty stomach.
The Great Mother waved her hand and the door shut. The man shook his head. “You didn’t need to show me that,” he said. “I know how awful people are.”
The Great Mother waved her hand again and a second door opened. Once again the man heard many voices and once again he saw people gathered around a big pot of stew. But as he looked closer, he saw that this scene was very different from the first. The people weren’t shouting at each other; they were chatting and laughing together. And they weren’t starving and angry. In fact, they were all quite cheerful.
What puzzled the man was that these people had the same long spoons as the first group, yet somehow they were not starving. Was it magic? Were they cheating somehow, maybe using short-handled spoons when no one was looking?
The man looked longingly at the happy group clustered around the pot of stew. He wished with all his heart to be like those people.
“How?” he asked the Great Mother. “How are they doing it?”
“Simple,” she replied. “They have learned to feed each other.”
And so we must all feed each other, today and every day.