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Bedtime Stories for Elders

Why Fairy Tales?

Our deepest truths are hidden in fairy tales.

I remember my grandmother sitting on the patio of our home in California happily absorbing the winter sun. Looking up from her reading, she began talking to me about fairies, who, she insisted, still lived in the world, including our own garden. But I was ten years old and did not believe in fairies. The fact that she did, however, intrigued me. How could a sixty-three-year-old woman, a real "grown-up," consider such silliness? With my superior knowledge, the conversation did not last long.

My grandmother went on to write a collection of fairy tales for her growing gaggle of grandchildren. I carried her little book of mimeographed stories with me through six cities, four academic degrees, and fifty-five years of life, but never read it. Recently I dug it out of storage and was stunned. Her fairy tales now spoke to me in a completely different way.

My education in fairy tales (and the related genres of myth, parable, fable and legend) began in the mid-1990's when I became involved in the men’s movement -- a rising up of midlife men frustrated with the exhausting, soul-numbing, competitive model of masculinity championed by popular culture. The requirement to be strong, confident and stoic in the world when feeling compromised, broken or dead inside was both painful and dishonest. Deep in the Mendocino redwoods of northern California, we came together as men to acknowledge our wounds and explore an alternative vision of manhood, one surprisingly sourced from ancient stories.

Spread across the daily story-telling portion of these retreats, a single fairy tale or myth would galvanize the gathering for a week, holding each man spellbound as he discovered his own personal connection to its remarkable wisdom. Building on the profound understanding of symbols advanced by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, mythologist Joseph Campbell, drumming storyteller Michael Mead, poet Robert Bly, and Jungian analysts James Hillman, Robert Johnson, and Allan Chinen, we learned to access the wisdom of these stories in new ways. The Rosetta Stone of depth psychology uncovered insights of timeless value. It was amazing!

I learned much from the teachers of story and myth. I learned that a simple fairy tale, told over and over across the centuries in the oral tradition preceding the printing press, collected the wisdom and experience of each generation, its symbolism growing ever more profound with time. I learned, too, that we each held a piece of the puzzle, for as we explored our own personal meanings, we were uncovering the story's deeper archetypal ones. Interpreted symbolically, fairy tales taught us about men and masculinity, women and femininity, and the great adventures of love, sorrow, death and transformation. They nourished every nook and cranny of the tired soul, restoring not only our humanity but, as we will see, our path to divinity as well. And for me, they met a particularly deep and unusual need.

Since my earliest years, I have been studying the psyche, my own and others'. Turning psychological observations and insights over and over in my mind as a lapidary tumbler polishes stones, I kept looking into the hidden depth and nature of the personality. Of course a child does not understand such a quest -- it is only truly appreciated looking back, but for me, the search was always present, growing clearer with each decade. Then, in the swirling and painful chaos of midlife, I listened to Robert Bly explain the symbolism of Iron John and Michael Meade unwrap the deep meanings of The Spirit in the Bottle (fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm) and my mind exploded with the insights hidden in these tales.

Suddenly I saw how fairy tale, myth, fable, legend and parable -- and for that matter, poetry, novels, movies and life itself, spontaneously express the same unconscious themes in myriad and protean ways, constantly renewing humankind's universal motifs of ultimate meaning. I began to understand the "purpose" of relationship struggles, emotional wounding, and the long journey of life in a new way. As a clinical psychologist, I had been given theories and diagnostic categories for comprehending the emotional problems of life -- heady and scientific; now I accessed the far deeper symbolic significance of these problems.

Fairy tales and myths became my new diagnostic manual, and for me they made so much more sense than the medical model. It was glorious. I saw how we must all go out into the world like the Prodigal Son, face the death of the hero like Prometheus, and finally mature like Abraham and Moses to a greater understanding of life in old age. Long interested in spiritual growth, I was disappointed to find very few fairy tales describing enlightened aging. Indeed Alan Chinnen discovered that elder stories comprised less than two percent of all fairy tales, suggesting that humankind really has very little experience with old age, which is not surprising when we recall the average life span in the middle ages was twenty-five (it reached forty-five in 1900 and sixty-five when the baby boomers came along). Living now into our mid-seventies and eighties, however, has created a new aging experience but we need new elder tales to fill the void.

Bedtime Stories for Elders is built upon ten profound and powerful stories revealing the unseen psychological and spiritual dimensions of this new aging, providing a lens through which our own aging will make more sense. With each tale, we travel more deeply into the ultimate meaning and transformational potential of aging. Enjoy these tales but do not rush through them -- profound teachings take a long time to digest. Instead, take one story at a time, imagine yourself as the protagonist, carry the story around for several days and let it work in your unconscious, stirring up imagination, dreams, and unexpected insights. For me, this deep absorption in fairy tales is more than an academic exercise, it has become a spiritual practice, and I find it fascinating that we can return to the world's fairy tales in old age to discover their ultimate wisdom. I encourage you to apply this wisdom to your own life, for the real gold nuggets glitter there.

Finally, don't be fooled by the apparent simplicity, superficiality or strange symbolism of fairy tales -- they are profound and powerful beyond measure. Even more amazing, like Russian nesting dolls, this book is made of story within story within story, and the most fantastic may just be true. So here is my guarantee: understood deeply, these fairy tales will change you. And for those wishing additional guidance on interpreting fairy tales, please consult the Appendix. Once on board, you can journey on your own into the deep and shining wisdom of fairy tales.