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I am a 12 grade student of law, international relations, and history living in Shanghai, China. An author and researcher of wisdom tales and history, I am multilingual (English, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Cantonese, and Arabic) and aspire to become a change-maker who one day will create a meaningful impact in international law and diplomacy. I am also the Founder and Director of an international mock trial tournament: Law Association for Crimes Across History (www.LACAH.net) which retries some of history’s most heinous perpetrators of evil to gain generational perspective with teams of students from over 20 countries. I host a podcast that feeds and shares my passion for history at www.history42.com.
Un Homme qui s’aimait sans avoir de rivaux Passait dans son esprit pour le plus beau du monde: Il accusait toujours les miroirs d’être faux,
Vivant plus que content dans son erreur profonde. Afin de le guérir, le Sort officieux
Présentait partout à ses yeux
Les conseillers muets dont se servent nos Dames; Miroirs dans les logis, miroirs chez les Marchands, Miroirs aux poches des Galands,
Miroirs aux ceintures des femmes.
Que fait notre Narcisse? Il se va confiner
Aux lieux les plus cachés qu’il peut s’imaginer, N’osant plus des miroirs éprouver l’aventure. Mais un canal formé par une source pure,
Se trouve en ces lieux écartés:
Il s’y voit, il se fâche; et ses yeux irrités Pensent apercevoir une chimère vaine.
Il fait tout ce qu’il peut pour éviter cette eau. Mais quoi, le canal est si beau
Qu’il ne le quitte qu’avec peine. On voit bien où je veux venir:
Je parle à tous; et cette erreur extrême
Est un mal que chacun se plaît d’entretenir.
Notre âme c’est cet Homme amoureux de lui-même; Tant de miroirs, ce sont les sottises d’autrui, Miroirs, de nos défauts les peintres légitimes;
Et quant au canal, c’est celui
Que chacun sait, le livre des Maximes
This fable was dedicated to Duke de La Rochefoucauld, referred to at the end of the fable. He is the author of the famous Maximes. La Rochefoucauld was La Fontaine’s friend and patron. His book includes moral maxims such as “People generally complain about their memory, but never about their judgment” and “If we had no faults, we would not take so much pleasure in noticing those of others.”
The Man and His Image
Original by Jean de La Fontaine
A man who loved himself a great deal too much Thought he was most beautiful. As such
He always accused the mirrors of being wrong, Living happily in illusion, like a ding-dong.
So to cure him, Fate became an officious interferer Making sure everywhere he turned there was a mirror. The mute advisors that serve our ladies:
Mirrors in homes, shops, and other facilities, Mirrors in the gents’ pockets of necessities, Mirrors on our ladies’ belts and accessories. How was our Narcissus responding?
To the most hidden places imaginable he went running. He escaped to the forest not to see his own face, Remaining apart from the whole human race.
Then he ran into a remote watercourse, A gushing spring its purest source.
2. l’Homme eT son image
Into the brook, he could not help but gaze, And could no longer escape seeing his face. The moral I want to show is clear to see
This is an extreme fault from which many are not free: Our soul is an obsessive self-lover
Who never wants our heart to suffer. Seeing our flaws mirroring others’,
We avoid the reflections, sisters and brothers,
Because when we see our weaknesses and faults depicted Then the pain is truly inflicted.
My metaphor of the brook,
Needless to say, illustrates that Duke’s book.
My Reflections and Interpretations:
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, which mirror is the fairest of them all?”
The mirror in this parable reminds me of the Mirror of Erised in the Harry Potter series—a magical mirror, which, according to Albus Dumbledore, shows the “deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” Its name, “Erised,” is “desire” spelled backward, as if reflected in a mirror. J. K. Rowling explained:
“Albus Dumbledore’s words of caution to Harry when discussing the Mirror of Erised express my views. The advice to ‘hold on to your dreams’ is all well and good, but there comes a point when holding on to your dreams becomes unhelpful and even unhealthy.”
The Mirror of Erised shows our desires yet the mirrors in La Fontaine’s parable show our fears. They’re opposites, but these two interpretations of mirrors have a single moral: Reflection becomes a problem when fantasy replaces reality for too long.
Our soul is an obsessive self-lover, Who never wants our heart to suffer. Seeing our flaws mirroring others’,
We avoid the reflections, sisters and brothers …
What’s fascinating to me in the excerpt above and the parable as a whole is that it shows how human beings use reason as a tool—mostly to defend our actions and points of view. We are adept at fashioning reasons for opinions we already hold. This very human reaction, exemplified in the parable, confirms the presence of the ingrained bias that often leads us to seek out only the information that will support our belief or present point of view.
I can’t help but wonder: what should be done when we face a reality that we do not want? Should we avoid it like the man in this parable? Or hold onto the dream, like Harry Potter does? Should we, perhaps, resign ourselves to the belief that “life is but a dream” and take a deterministic attitude towards life, as in Through the Looking-Glass? Should we, maybe, take things into our own hands at all costs like the Queen in “Snow White”? Or, instead, should we ponder the message from Mark Twain’s “The Fable,” which uses a mirror to show that satisfaction stems from a change in perspective?
Life is complex. We all need to know which mirror works for us and when. For me, wisdom tales are helpful in my exploration of life’s adventures, anxieties, and dreams; they are my mirror and often my Duke’s book.
Un Ane accompagnait un Cheval peu courtois, Celui-ci ne portant que son simple harnois,
Et le pauvre Baudet si chargé qu’il succombe. Il pria le Cheval de l’aider quelque peu: Autrement il mourrait devant qu’être à la ville. La prière, dit-il, n’en est pas incivile:
Moitié de ce fardeau ne vous sera que jeu. Le Cheval refusa, fit une pétarade:
Tant qu’il vit sous le faix mourir son camarade, Et reconnut qu’il avait tort.
Du Baudet, en cette aventure, On lui fit porter la voiture, Et la peau par-dessus encor.
En ce monde il se faut l’un l’autre secourir. Si ton voisin vient à mourir,
C’est sur toi que le fardeau tombe.
The Horse and the Ass
Original by Jean de La Fontaine
A horse and an ass were traveling together The horse carried little except his own tether.
While the poor ass beside him a heavy load carrying, He finally fell down onto the hard ground, almost dying. He begged the horse to show him some pity,
So, he would not collapse before reaching the city. “My request after all is very slight;
This load to you would be very light.”
The horse refused, thinking himself very clever But soon the helpless ass passed out forever.
Then the horse realized he was far from right The masters made him their new “ass” that night.
He alone pulled the cart through thick and thin, Including the new load of the ass’s skin.
We must always decide to help our brothers,
Because if they fail, it could be on our ass and not on others!
My Reflections and Interpretations: First They Came…
This fable above definitely reminds me of the powerful poem adapted from the post-war confessional prose of the German pastor Martin Niemöller:
When the Nazis came for the Communists, I kept silent;
I was after all not a Communist.
When they locked up the Social Democrats, I kept silent;
I was after all not a Social Democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists, I kept silent, I was after all not a trade unionist.
When they came for me, there was no one left who could protest.
This is one of the reasons I aspire to pursue a career in international law and diplomacy as a way to fight crimes against peace. I am inspired by the work of leaders like lawyer Polly Higgins, who spent her life and life savings pushing for ecocide to become an international law; and lawyer Alain Werner, who brings perpetrators of mass horrors like Alieu Kosiah, a man who allegedly committed murder, rape, and cannibalism during the Liberian civil war, to trial in Switzerland under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
So, my reply to Niemöller: Inspired by you and others, I am gathering my weapons of self-reflection, wisdom tales, law, and diplomacy so that if they come, I will be ready to join forces with others to speak out and stand up. Better still, I am aspiring to work on making it impossible for them to come in the first place by helping to put up legal, political, and emotional shields for humanity.
11. Two STorieS: MonóLogo DeL Bien &塞翁失马
Sai Weng Lost His “Ma” (Horse is “Ma” in Chinese)
The origin of the story behind the Chinese idiom: Huainanzi, a collection of essays by Liu An (around 179 BC–122 BC), is an ancient Chinese classic that blends Daoist, Confucianist, and Legalist concepts.
Note: I did not translate “ma” to “horse” in the story because it made more sense for the reflection that follows, so please bear with me.
Sai Weng reared ma (horses) for a living. One day he lost one that he was raising
His neighbors comforted him with many condolences.
But Sai Weng smiled and said, “Losing one horse is of no consequence.
Who knows? Maybe this is part of a blessing.”
A few months later, his lost ma and a new stud were spotted returning,
His neighbors, this time, showered him with congratulations. But Sai Weng said, “I still have my own reservations.
Who knows? This may be a curse in the making.”
A few days later, Sai Weng’s only son took the stud out racing, The stud went wild and the son was shoved off from its muscles’ strong ripples
Hurt him so bad that he became a cripple. Again, the neighbors said they were sorry,
But Sai Weng said, “Please, my friends, do not worry. Who knows? It may well be his biggest fortune.”
A few days later, a major war was broken. All the young men were called to fight,
Except for Sai Weng’s son because of his plight. Many were killed in the terrible atrocity,
And Weng was right in life’s unpredictability.
My Reflections and Interpretations: When Ma Loses His Ma
One day, a young man was perusing advertisements in the newspapers, looking for a job. He applied to many and was rejected for every single one. He applied to KFC. In total, twenty-four people submitted applications, and all but he got the job. He tried to be a cop. This time, five applicants applied, and, yet again, he was the one who did not get the job. He was told it was because his look was just too scary for the job. But he didn’t give up. Left with nowhere to go, he took a leap of faith and started his own small company. You may have heard of it. It’s called Alibaba. Sorry for the dry sarcasm. Yes, he is Jack Ma, currently one of the richest men on earth. If he had been accepted to a 9–5 job back then, he might not have taken the entrepreneurial route, and e-commerce, as we know it today, might not be what it is.
Then a few months ago, in October 2020, he was about to see the IPO of another company he co-founded, valued at $300 billion USD. I imagine he was feeling like Neil
Armstrong before he stepped off his carrier: a step away from the moon. Then, according to some online news reports, he made a twenty-minute speech, roasting the anachronistic government regulation in China that suffocated innovation. In no time, the Chinese government stopped his IPO, and he fell from the moon back to earth. This was a sudden turn of fortune that few, if anyone, saw coming.
This reminds me not to give up in times of failure, and to steadfastly remain vigilant in times of success. In the fable, Sai Weng loses his ma, and in this story, Jack Ma also lost his ma (the “ma” from “horse” in Chinese sounds exactly like the “ma” in “chou ma,” which means “bargaining chips,” like ones used in casinos).
Un mendigo pedía limosna dignamente, y uno que pasaba le dijo:
-No te da vergüenza ejercer este infame oficio pudiendo trabajar?
-Te pido dinero -respondió el mendigo-, no consejo.
A continuación volvió la espalda, conservando toda su dignidad
Original by Voltaire
A beggar asked for alms with dignity, and one passerby asked him, “Aren’t you ashamed to be in this detestable trade when you can work?”
“I asked you for money,” replied the beggar, “not advice.” Then he turned his back, preserving all his dignity.
My Reflections and Interpretations: Judging and Being Judged
In the book Don’t Split the Difference, former FBI negotiator Chris Voss discusses many field-tested tools. The whole book is excellent, especially his warning that our assumptions and biases often “muck up our perceptual windows,” blinding us to possibilities and intellectual agility that are crucial in challenging and fluid situations.
The moral I take from this story, “Self-Love,” is that both sides miss an opportunity to communicate. The passerby judges harshly, assuming that the beggar is not sick, hurt, or burdened with other problems that prevent him from working. The beggar, acting similarly, gives a terse reply to protect his dignity, assuming further discussion will not be productive. In the end, the passerby spares his change, and the beggar spares his dignity. Nothing has changed, but both walk away somewhat dissatisfied with the encounter.
If they had taken Voss’s approach, questioning their own assumptions, the passerby might have found that the beggar deserved his help, as he had reasons that kept him from working. Similarly, the beggar might have found that the passerby had his own baggage, causing him to snap curtly. This mutual understanding could have led to unexpected benefits on both sides.
Communicating this type of measured response, I admit, is much easier said than done. I have declined to give money to healthy-looking beggars. I have turned a deaf ear to blunt advice. I have been both the passerby and the beggar. All I can hope for is to be a better version of both in the future.