The story of Hansel and Gretel has long been my guide, but only recently have I consciously been aware of it. It seemed to describe my life so well: adults who couldn’t be trusted, or adults who abandoned you, or adults who would, given the chance, eat you up whole.
Teaching it to bored, jittery seventh-graders helped me remember that it’s a story about conjuring hope in the midst of fear.
What I love about the story is that it centers on the bravery of children. Of their courage, their ingenuity, and their resistance. The first time they’re abandoned, well, it’s to be expected in their crazy family. Hansel knew that, which is why he picked up the stones to guide them back.
Hansel’s reaction to overhearing his parents’ plans to abandon him and Gretel always spoke to me. He models acceptance of what is, but plans for contingencies.
My anxiety — when it’s bad — makes me catastrophize. But in my better Hansel-mind, I remember that I can guide myself out. I can find home, no matter where I’m at. It’s in my power to pay attention, to be brave, to accept that the circumstances of fear and pain and panic are temporary.
Also, Hansel didn’t act alone. And I suspect a lot of his courage was a response to needing to protect his sister. She returns the favor for him when she pushes the witch into the oven.
It’s Gretel who really calls me to courage. She faced down a cannibal witch without the muscle of her brother. Like Hansel, she decided to plan rather than despair. And when it came time to do the thing she didn’t think she could do: BAM! Into the oven went the monster.
The witch underestimated Gretel. She thought, since Gretel was complying with her orders to feed Hansel, and her willingness to eat crab shells, proved that she broke Gretel’s will. But she didn’t. She just made Gretel more creative, more disciplined, more committed to the plan. But it’s that act of final resistance — that act under her own strength — of pushing the witch into the oven — that’s what sticks with me. That’s what I imagine, even five decades on in my life, when I have to do the thing that scares me.
I channel Gretel. I face the monster. And I fight back.
Image: Theodor Hosemann/Wikimedia Commons