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Friedman's Fables

Friedman's Fables

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by Edwin H. Friedman

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Edwin H. Friedman has woven 24 illustrative tales that offer fresh perspectives on familiar human foibles and reflect the author's humor, pathos, and understanding. Friedman takes on resistance and other "demons" to show that neither insight, nor encouragement, nor intimidation can in themselves motivate an unmotivated person to change. These tales playfully


Edwin H. Friedman has woven 24 illustrative tales that offer fresh perspectives on familiar human foibles and reflect the author's humor, pathos, and understanding. Friedman takes on resistance and other "demons" to show that neither insight, nor encouragement, nor intimidation can in themselves motivate an unmotivated person to change. These tales playfully demonstrate that new ideas, new questions, and imagination, more than accepted wisdom, provide each of us with the keys to overcoming stubborn emotional barriers and facilitating real change both in ourselves and others. Thought-provoking discussion questions for each fable are included.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Friedman, with humor, wisdom, and a devious mind, has created a series of fables that highlight the classic dilemmas and struggles of relationships. His characters haunt the reader long after the stories are over and inflict insight better than any formal interpretation ever could. These parables make great lessons and great reading for those caught in the web of trying to change another person or themselves.''—Carol Anderson, PhD
"I used a fable for my sermon, and you could have heard a pin drop by the end....I find the book thoroughly delightful and powerful.''—The Rev. Henry C. Galganowicz, Rector, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Weston, Connecticut
AFTA Newsletter
"The book had an unexpected effect. I found myself more creative in the therapy sessions that followed, almost as if I had been granted some internal form of permission to co-create a story alongside the stuck stories of so many of my clients.... The stories...had, in effect, stimulated my own story-telling ability."

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Guilford Publications, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt

Friedman's fables

By Edwin H. Friedman

Guilford Press

Copyright © 1990 The Guilford Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4625-1149-5



The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. Communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.

The Bridge

There was a man who had given much thought to what he wanted from life. He had experienced many moods and trials. He had experimented with different ways of living, and he had had his share of both success and failure. At last, he began to see clearly where he wanted to go.

Diligently, he searched for the right opportunity. Sometimes he came close, only to be pushed away. Often he applied all his strength and imagination, only to find the path hopelessly blocked. And then at last it came. But the opportunity would not wait. It would be made available only for a short time. If it were seen that he was not committed, the opportunity would not come again.

Eager to arrive, he started on his journey. With each step, he wanted to move faster; with each thought about his goal, his heart beat quicker; with each vision of what lay ahead, he found renewed vigor. Strength that had left him since his early youth returned, and desires, all kinds of desires, reawakened from their long-dormant positions.

Hurrying along, he came upon a bridge that crossed through the middle of a town. It had been built high above a river in order to protect it from the floods of spring.

He started across. Then he noticed someone coming from the opposite direction. As they moved closer, it seemed as though the other were coming to greet him. He could see clearly, however, that he did not know this other, who was dressed similarly except for something tied around his waist.

When they were within hailing distance, he could see that what the other had about his waist was a rope. It was wrapped around him many times and probably, if extended, would reach a length of 30 feet.

The other began to uncurl the rope, and, just as they were coming close, the stranger said, "Pardon me, would you be so kind as to hold the end a moment?"

Surprised by this politely phrased but curious request, he agreed without a thought, reached out, and took it.

"Thank you," said the other, who then added, "two hands now, and remember, hold tight." Whereupon, the other jumped off the bridge.

Quickly, the free-falling body hurtled the distance of the rope's length, and from the bridge the man abruptly felt the pull. Instinctively, he held tight and was almost dragged over the side. He managed to brace himself against the edge, however, and after having caught his breath, looked down at the other dangling, close to oblivion.

"What are you trying to do?" he yelled.

"Just hold tight," said the other.

"This is ridiculous," the man thought and began trying to haul the other in. He could not get the leverage, however. It was as though the weight of the other person and the length of the rope had been carefully calculated in advance so that together they created a counterweight just beyond his strength to bring the other back to safety.

"Why did you do this?" the man called out.

"Remember," said the other, "if you let go, I will be lost."

"But I cannot pull you up," the man cried.

"I am your responsibility," said the other.

"Well, I did not ask for it," the man said.

"If you let go, I am lost," repeated the other.

He began to look around for help. But there was no one. How long would he have to wait? Why did this happen to befall him now, just as he was on the verge of true success? He examined the side, searching for a place to tie the rope. Some protrusion, perhaps, or maybe a hole in the boards. But the railing was unusually uniform in shape; there were no spaces between the boards. There was no way to get rid of this newfound burden, even temporarily.

"What do you want?" he asked the other hanging below.

"Just your help," the other answered.

"How can I help? I cannot pull you in, and there is no place to tie the rope so that I can go and find someone to help me help you."

"I know that. Just hang on; that will be enough. Tie the rope around your waist; it will be easier."

Fearing that his arms could not hold out much longer, he tied the rope around his waist.

"Why did you do this?" he asked again. "Don't you see what you have done? What possible purpose could you have had in mind?"

"Just remember," said the other, "my life is in your hands."

What should he do? "If I let go, all my life I will know that I let this other die. If I stay, I risk losing my momentum toward my own long-sought-after salvation. Either way this will haunt me forever." With ironic humor he thought to die himself, instantly, to jump off the bridge while still holding on. "That would teach this fool." But he wanted to live and to live life fully. "What a choice I have to make; how shall I ever decide?"

As time went by, still no one came. The critical moment of decision was drawing near. To show his commitment to his own goals, he would have to continue on his journey now. It was already almost too late to arrive in time. But what a terrible choice to have to make.

A new thought occurred to him. While he could not pull this other up solely by his own efforts, if the other would shorten the rope from his end by curling it around his waist again and again, together they could do it. Actually, the other could do it by himself, so long as he, standing on the bridge, kept it still and steady.

"Now listen," he shouted down. "I think I know how to save you." And he explained his plan.

But the other wasn't interested.

"You mean you won't help? But I told you I cannot pull you up myself, and I don't think I can hang on much longer either."

"You must try," the other shouted back in tears. "If you fail, I die."

The point of decision arrived. What should he do? "My life or this other's?" And then a new idea. A revelation. So new, in fact, it seemed heretical, so alien was it to his traditional way of thinking.

"I want you to listen carefully," he said, "because I mean what I am about to say. I will not accept the position of choice for your life, only for my own; the position of choice for your own life I hereby give back to you."

"What do you mean?" the other asked, afraid.

"I mean, simply, it's up to you. You decide which way this ends. I will become the counterweight. You do the pulling and bring yourself up. I will even tug a little from here." He began unwinding the rope from around his waist and braced himself anew against the side.

"You cannot mean what you say," the other shrieked. "You would not be so selfish. I am your responsibility. What could be so important that you would let someone die? Do not do this to me."

He waited a moment. There was no change in the tension of the rope.

"I accept your choice," he said, at last, and freed his hands.

A Nervous Condition

When little John was about a year old, his parents noticed very thin fibers protruding through his pores. After another few months the fibers had extended themselves. They began to form curls. The condition alarmed his parents, so they took little John to a doctor. The physician, after examining him carefully, called in several specialists. They, in turn, summoned their colleagues and, after conferring for several hours, announced: Little John was unique in medical history — his ganglia were growing outside his skin.

Since there was no record of this having happened before, it was not clear what the ultimate effects of such a condition would be, and since little John was otherwise in excellent health, it was decided to do nothing for a while but observe.

Of course, one immediate problem was little John's rapidly developing, extreme sensitivity to everything and everyone around him. The doctors alerted his parents, warning them that they must be supersensitive to his every move and touch. Being very sensitive people anyway, they readily agreed.

As little John grew, so did his ganglia, until they trailed about him as he walked. While it was not a pretty sight, surprisingly it turned out to have some advantages.

He learned from the very beginning, for example, first from his ever-concerned parents and then from others, that he could always count on someone watching out for him. Indeed, he learned early in life that anyone who came into his orbit would always pay attention to his every move for fear of hurting him. He found that he could plough a path through any group of friends by just walking toward them. People would always retreat at his advance for fear of "stepping on his feelings." When he engaged in sports, or when he just wanted to be first in line, all he had to do was start in the direction he chose, and his approach itself proved to be an "open sesame."

Sometimes he encountered people who had not been forewarned about his condition, and then he had to point it out as early in their relationship as possible. Once they understood, however, they never tried to get in his way.

All of this is not to say that individuals never felt resentment toward little John. Some of his classmates, and one of his brothers in particular, who were most competitive with him for certain goals, felt handicapped by his handicap, but they never spoke it aloud. All managed to quiet their resentment with self-recriminations about their own insensitivity.

And so it went. Little John graduated high school (having done fewer homework assignments than any other child who ever attended), and he obtained a secure job, though less qualified than most of those seeking the same position.

One day he met a woman whom he liked. Being extremely shy and not having enough confidence or experience to refute her own poor image of herself, she was thrilled at the advances of this very attentive, if somewhat strange, creature. She treated him with the utmost deference, and her pity soon became love. Everywhere they went she watched out for him. In time, the guiding principle of her life became, "How can I help this man avoid pain?"

But after they had been married a while, she began to tire. Still she tried, for this poor man could not help himself. But it became increasingly difficult for her to be constantly mindful of his needs. She decided to confess her increasing insensitivity to her friends. She mentioned it to her family, to her minister, to her doctor. She sought professional help. All comforted her and sympathized but could offer little practical advice, and so they urged her to be more patient. She tried again to shape her existence to his needs. Then the headaches started. Then the little tic in her eye. Soon she found she was losing weight. Colitis further restricted her freedom, and it was not long before her thoughts were bordering on suicide. She dared not tell little John, of course, for fear of hurting him. Why, if he knew that all of this was due to his condition, he would be inconsolable.

One day, as she was walking home, she chanced upon a mother cat giving suck to her newborn kittens. As they scrambled over one another in their thirst, the mother carefully guided each one to its turn, stretching out a firm but gentle paw as she lay contentedly on her side. Then little John's wife noticed that one of the kittens had been born lame; its leg had not been fully formed, and it had more difficulty maneuvering than the others. Strangely, it was also the most aggressive. While the other kittens, when satisfied, went off to sleep, this one kept coming back to wiggle its way in front of thirsty others. Each time, however, the mother cat pushed it away, at first gently, and then with successively harder whacks.

Little John's wife watched the poor kitty and the "inhuman" mother. But when she returned home, upon finding her husband reading in a room, she planted herself in the doorway and began to stare. A little while later, little John, desiring to enter another room, marched straight for the doorway that framed his wife. She did not budge. Closer he came, closer, never thinking actually to ask her to move (after all, he had never had to ask anyone to get out of his way before). Suddenly, he stopped, confused. What should he do? First he assumed his most wounded look. Then he tried one that was more winsome and boyish, but his wife was like a rock. In desperation, he finally spoke. "Move. You know I cannot squeeze by." Nothing. "What's the matter with you?" he yelled. "What are you trying to do to me? This is like a trap." Then she did begin to move, not aside, but rather directly toward him. He retreated. She continued on. He moved back faster, but still on she came. Soon he was cornered.

"Have you lost your mind?" he said incredulously. "Careful there, you almost hurt me," he said pathetically. That did it. She raised a foot and STOMP, with all her might she came down hard on one of his trailing nerve endings. He screeched, either from pain or shock. Again she stomped, and again and again. He ran past her, but she pursued. He screeched again, and the scream encouraged her more. STOMP, STOMP, she continued chasing him from room to room, up and down stairs, to the cellar, to the attic, through the kitchen, to their bedroom, until, exhausted, they both collapsed and fell asleep.

When Little John's wife awoke, her headache was gone for the first time in months. Her eye, too, had lost its quiver, and for the first time in a very long time she sighed without a pain and felt relaxed. But more astounding still was what she saw beside her. For, when she looked over at little John, she found that his ganglia were no longer curled around him all about the floor. On closer examination, she realized that they had disappeared altogether. In fact, they had completely recoiled inside his skin.

The Friendly Forest

Once upon a time in the Friendly Forest there lived a lamb who loved to graze and frolic about. One day a tiger came to the forest and said to the animals, "I would like to live among you." They were delighted. For, unlike some of the other forests, they had no tiger in their woods. The lamb, however, had some apprehensions, which, being a lamb, she sheepishly expressed to her friends. But, said they, "Do not worry, we will talk to the tiger and explain that one of the conditions for living in this forest is that you must also let the other animals live in the forest."

So the lamb went about her life as usual. But it was not long before the tiger began to growl and make threatening gestures and menacing motions. Each time the frightened lamb went to her friends and said, "It is very uncomfortable for me here in the forest." But her friends reassured her, "Do not worry; that's just the way tigers behave."

Every day, as she went about her life, the lamb tried to remember this advice, hoping that the tiger would find someone else to growl at. And it is probably correct to say that the tiger did not really spend all or even most of its time stalking the lamb. Still, the lamb found it increasingly difficult to remove the tiger from her thoughts. Sometimes she would just catch it out of the corner of her eye, but that seemed enough to disconcert her for the day, even if the cat were asleep. Soon the lamb found that she was actually looking for the tiger. Sometimes days or even weeks went by between its intrusive actions, yet, somehow, the tiger had succeeded in always being there. Eventually the tiger's existence became a part of the lamb's existence. When she tried to explain this to her friends, however, they pointed out that no harm had really befallen her and that perhaps she was just being too sensitive.

So the lamb again tried to put the tiger out of her mind. "Why," she said to herself, "should I let my relationship with just one member of the forest ruin my relationships with all the others?" But every now and then, usually when she was least prepared, the tiger would give her another start.

Finally the lamb could not take it anymore. She decided that, much as she loved the forest and her friends, more than she had ever loved any other forest or friends, the cost was too great. So she went to the other animals in the woods and said good-bye.


Excerpted from Friedman's fables by Edwin H. Friedman. Copyright © 1990 The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission of Guilford Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Edwin H. Friedman, until his death in 1996, worked for more than 35 years in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, and was in great demand as a consultant and public speaker throughout the country. A family therapist and ordained rabbi, Edwin H. Friedman was well known in the fields of mental health and pastoral education for his motivational style and his unique blend of systems thinking, humor, and common sense. He offered acclaimed workshops for mental health practitioners, clergy, business leaders, and others.

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