Emmet Fox told a story about a bear that might be worth our time:
“There is an anecdote of the Far West which carries a wonderful lesson. It appears that a party of hunters, being called away from their camp, left the campfire unattended, with a kettle of water boiling on it.
Presently an old bear crept out of the woods, and, seeing the kettle with its lid dancing about on top, promptly seized it. The boiling water scalded him badly; but instead of dropping the kettle instantly, he proceeded to hug it tightly — this being a bear’s idea of defense.
Of course, the tighter he hugged it, the more it burned him; and the more it burned him, the tighter he hugged it; and so on in a vicious circle, to the undoing of the bear.
This illustrates perfectly the way in which many people hug their difficulties to their bosoms by constantly rehearsing them to themselves and others.”
The person who first shared this story with me heard it at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Fox’s secretary had a son who worked with AA co-founder Bill Wilson. That’s probably how some of Fox’s New Thought spiritual beliefs became familiar in AA circles.
But regardless of the origin of the story, the point of the story seems clear to me. Sometimes we hold tightly to things (beliefs, ideas, histories) that hurt us. While instinct and logic would say, “drop that kettle!” we may still be gripping our pain tightly.
When I see people lugging their pain around with them – sometimes seeming to wear it as a badge of honor – I try to remember to ask myself “why?” I try to withhold judging them (not my job!) and seek to imagine why that painful memory might seem “useful” to them. [This seems like the right place for this disclaimer: I am certain that I sometimes exhibit this self-defeating, illogical habit of thought. But I, like most people I suppose, am much better at identifying other people’s problems than my own.]
What if it’s not a kettle?
A tightly held belief might serve as a detrimental “kettle” for one person and could have a protective value for another. When we cling to an idea and it protects us from repeating a mistake, that belief has a protective value and serves as a shield. Remembering that certain kinds of people we’re attracted to tend to result in abusive, controlling, or otherwise unsatisfying relationships can protect us from future suffering. But the same belief, ratcheted up a notch or two, could lead to a belief that all people are untrustworthy. That’s not a shield anymore – that’s a boiling hot kettle that will harm us.
On the other hand, if we remind ourselves that we are survivors (not victims) who overcame great adversity in the past, thoughts of negative past events might actually propel us forward. Maybe some beliefs that we hold can be lanterns that lead us forward toward the better, healthier, happier future. So, if you find beliefs with which you identify on the list below, it may not be a kettle. But, it’s probably worth carefully considering the purpose that holding that thought serves for you. If it is a kettle, could you reframe that belief so that it serves as a shield or even a lantern? Could you tell that story in a way that’s still true, but doesn’t harm or limit you. Might that painful old belief even become fuel for your forward journey?
While I am not pretending to be a psychology expert, here are some examples of “kettles” that come to mind:
- my abusive relationship
- my diagnosis
- my addiction
- my relapse
- my divorce
- my condition
- my spouse
Thank you for reading this post today, and thank you even more for seriously contemplating what self-limiting or self-degrading beliefs you might be holding. We’re complicated people – each with a unique story and path. Being mindful and intentional about our story can benefit us and those around us. Be well, brave friend.
Remember that we hold our beliefs, but our beliefs hold us, too!