Oobleck

Have you ever read that great Dr. Seuss book, Bartholomew and the Oobleck? It’s been on my mind for the past several weeks, and as usually happens with me and the creations of the late Theo Geisel, I’ve come to realize how profound the story is.

A certain spoiled King Darwin decides he is tired of the four kinds of weather in his kingdom. Fog, rain, snow, and sunshine are not enough anymore—he wants something different. He summons the creepy court magicians, who concoct a horrible recipe for a mysterious substance they call “oobleck,” and to the King’s delight the stuff begins to fall from the sky early the next morning.

Only the oobleck isn’t at all what the King had envisioned. Instead, the stuff that plops all over the kingdom is an impossibly gooey, green gunk, and it covers everything. The nobles, the peasants working the fields, the court musicians, the animals both inside and outside the castle: In a matter of hours, no one can move because everyone is glued together by gobs of the monstrous, sticky paste. The more everyone tries to get unstuck, the more stuck they become.

Finally, with no other options to turn to, the King realizes his mistake, and with the helpful prodding of the boy Bartholomew, (who miraculously avoids getting smothered by oobleck as he scampers about the kingdom) the King apologizes. Beautifully, magically, the oobleck disappears.

Bartholomew told the King this was all his fault, for not being happy with what falls from the sky. At that moment the King began to cry, saying, “yes, this is all my fault, and I’m awfully, awfully sorry!”

Maybe there was something magic in those words, because at that moment the sun began to shine and fight its way through the storm and the oobleck grew smaller and smaller. At that moment all the oobleck began to melt away!

So what’s the takeaway?

Especially in recent months with my future as open and uncertain as it is, I very much can relate to King Darwin. If I’m the cause of a messy situation to begin with, my initial reaction is to try to fix it myself. This often results in me looking something like the washed-up king in Dr. Seuss’s apt illustration: unable to budge, every inch of me covered in hubris.

In light of all this, these stanzas by the Indian poet Tagore prove to be extremely refreshing. (I found this in Brennan Manning’s lovely book The Ragamuffin Gospel.)

No, it is not yours to open buds into blossoms.

Shake the bud, strike it; it is beyond your power to make it blossom.

Your touch soils it, you tear its petals to pieces and strew them in the dust.

But no colors appear, and no perfume.

Ah! It is not for you to open the bud into blossoms.

He who can open the bud does it so simply.

He gives it a glance, and the life-sap stirs through its veins.

At his breath the flower spreads its wings and flutters in the wind.

Colors flush out like heart-longings, the perfume betrays a sweet secret.

He who can open the bud does it so simply.

As far as I know, Tagore was not a Christian. But there’s something divine about the “he” who can just look and breathe at a flower so that it opens and gushes with life.

Our fatal flaw as humans is that we so often think our power or knowledge is enough to control our surroundings, when in reality, we’re tearing ourselves and others apart. All we need to do is look at the Creator, who does not have to strain to bring about beauty and completion.

The first takeaway from these images, then, is that life without humility and gratitude is hopeless. (This isn’t such an original idea—we’ve all seen Titanic and hopefully The Emperor’s New Groove.) The king brought a whole lot of discomfort to his kingdom simply because he felt he didn’t have enough.

Our second flaw is that we’re so caught up in ourselves that we refuse to stop our struggle and admit our guilt. We’d rather plow ahead, convinced that if we only try a little harder everything will work out and we’ll prove that we were right from the start. When in doubt, stop and confess you’re probably at least partially to blame.

The last thing we must do is let God be the one to “open the bud.” It sounds like that would make life a lot easier, and if you’ve got hints on how to do this I’m all ears. Christians constantly throw around the term “surrender” when we talk about letting our wills be subsumed by God’s, and maybe that’s all it is: recognizing that if we were in a battle we would be losing, and that we need someone else to come in and win it for us.

God’s not going to wave away all the oobleck in our lives—at least, that’s not his usual response. But if nothing else, if we let him, he can keep us from jumping in it headfirst.

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