The Coffee Yogurt Story: A Parable
The Coffee Yogurt Story: A Parable

I couldn't sleep last night, one of those tossing-and-turning nights! And I was thinking how to say something I want to say here. I'll tell it as a story.... the first part is even true.

My mother had rigid likes and dislikes. It had never occurred to her that one can change one's likes; she seemed to regard them as a given, something dropped from on high. (Within very broad limits, you really can change your likes and this gives you a degree of freedom not enjoyed by those with rigid likes.) I could never convince her that it was possible to change her likes.

Coffee yogurt: Mother liked Dannon coffee yogurt. She would not eat any other brand of coffee yogurt, she would not eat any other flavor Dannon yogurt, she wouldn't eat homemade yogurt. It had to be Dannon coffee yogurt or no yogurt at all.

This was quite a nuisance; often the stores didn't have any. When we did find it, she'd buy as many as 20 Dannon coffee yogurts: then it was a hassle to find room in her refrigerator for them. Often she did without yogurt.

Mother was no fool, and she realized (I think) that this made her dependent on many things all happening with no mishaps: the package manufacturer manufacturing the packaging and getting it safely shipped to Dannon, the flavoring manufacturer making the flavoring and shipping the flavoring to the Dannon factory, Dannon making the yogurt (which meant that Dannon's machinery all had to function correctly), then the yogurt being shipped to a distributor, and the distributor shipping it to the Acme where we shopped. The supermarket had to order enough of it and on time. There were more links too which I haven't mentioned, and probably more I haven't thought of.

If just one link in that chain broke, Mother had no yogurt. She was very vulnerable with respect to yogurt.

This is the true part. Now let's contrast my mother with a few imaginary people.

Frances Flexible also liked yogurt, and she only liked Dannon coffee yogurt too. But she had learned that she could change her likes. Gradually, she learned to eat several other Dannon flavors and to eat a few other brands of coffee yogurt. She had to try each new yogurt flavor or brand four or five times before really coming to like it. She was still dependent on a lot of events not under her control for her yogurt, but at least she had a much better chance of finding yogurt than my mother did.

Sally Self-Reliant also started out only liking Dannon coffee yogurt. Like Frances, she was flexible and learned to like other yogurt. But unlike Frances, she really wanted to be as self-reliant as possible; to break those chains. She learned to make yogurt at home, and made it twice a week (her family also liked the homemade yogurt). To flavor the yogurt, she and her family planted rhubarb, gooseberries, strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, and learned to grow them. She bought honey from a local beekeeper (for sweetening the tart rhubarb and gooseberries). Since honey keeps well, she buys a year's supply at once. She learned to freeze and can the yogurt flavorings.

Sally has learned new skills. Her enjoyment of yogurt - and that of her family - is now only dependent on two links outside their control (instead of a whole long chain): that she can buy milk and yogurt starter. The yogurt starter lasts four to five months before she needs a new one; and the milk can be bought locally. Sally can also ensure against a temporary shortage of fresh milk by storing a reasonable amount of non-instant dry milk from which to make the yogurt. Sally doesn't have the facilities to have her own cow or goat, and she's horrified at the idea of keeping her own bees: but she has gone a considerable way towards self-reliance. Her self-confidence has increased too.

Now we come to Fred Fearful: Fred is Sally's neighbor and they are talking over the fence one day. The subject turns to yogurt. Sally tells him that she makes her own yogurt and that they grow the fruit to flavor it, etc. Fred likes several yogurt flavors, but he won't try making his own: 'Oh no,' he says 'I'm afraid I'd mess it up. I can never grow anything anyway and I might let the yogurt incubate too long or something like that.' Well, so much for Fred - he's not going to be very self-reliant. Not when he is afraid to try anything.

Next Sally encounters Pauline Perfectionist. The same conversation ensues but Pauline's reaction is different. Pauline listens carefully but she never tries it for herself. Why not? She thinks it's no use because Sally still has to rely on purchased milk. Pauline has let 'the perfect become the enemy of the good'. She won't be very self-reliant either. 'Letting the perfect become the enemy of the good' is a very common trap and a lot of people fall into it, by the way. Perfectionism is paralyzing; it stops learning and doing. (Don't ask me how I know!)

All of these people, from my mother right through to Sally, are dependent for their yogurt upon something happening that is not under their control. But Sally depends the least upon events not under her own control.

Sally also contributes the least to global warming and pollution by cutting out lots of 'food miles'. There isn't all that shipping hither and thither involved in her yogurt (lots of gasoline or diesel fuel not used). Factories aren't spouting smoke and particulates to produce her yogurt and its flavoring and packaging.

The fruit that her family planted primarily to flavor their yogurt is also enjoyed in other ways, and contributes to the good health of the whole family. It also serves as 'edible landscaping' and enhances their property.

And Sally saves a lot of money by making her own (I make our yogurt and I reckon that it saves us about $450/year). Sally uses some of the money she saves to buy a book on cheesemaking, a few gardening books, gardening tools, and the 'More-with-Less Cookbook' (economical home cooking).

Sally donates the rest of the money she saves to her favorite charity. The charity uses the money to buy a goat for a family in West Africa. The goat supplies valuable milk to the family, and the family gives the goat's first kid to another family in their village. The second family, in turn, will pass on their goat's first offspring - and so on.

Sally plants a vegetable garden next... and .. and ...I'm sure you get the picture.

Sally makes mistakes too: all 'doers' make occasional mistakes. Not everything works out as we have planned. But for the most part, success builds upon success.

Would you rather be like my mother (rigid likes and dislikes), like Frances (at least she likes several yogurts, but she is still heavily dependent upon a chain of events), like Fred (too fearful to try new things), like Pauline (paralyzed by perfectionism), or like Sally?

Which person do you think will face an uncertain future with the most confidence and grace? My money's on Sally.

11 May 2006

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