Have you heard the (only slightly macabre) story of the Spartan boy and the fox?
Some context: Sparta, that famously militaristic city-state in ancient Greece, had a rigorous system of military education. Boy children were essentially on loan to their parents from the state until the age of 7, when they had to leave their families to live in barracks until the age of 30. Life in the phalanx was short on academics and long on stuff like learning to eat only enough food to survive. Training focused on anything that could be useful from a military standpoint, including – from an early age – the art of stealing. (Child soldiers, anyone?) A solider in enemy territory, after all, would have to find food without being caught.
But here’s the thing – the boys were punished if they were caught. Stealing was acceptable; being bad at it was not.
One day, a Spartan boy managed to snag a live fox in a nearby village. (Don’t ask me why on earth; I think it’s bonkers too.) Unfortunately for him, when he came back to camp, his trainer noticed him and asked what he had been doing. The boy had no chance to hide the fox anywhere except for under his clothes. As the trainer kept asking the boy where he had been, the fox started scratching and biting the boy under his shirt. The boy remained silent. The questioning kept coming, and so did the blood, but the boy must have been more afraid of the punishment to come than he was of his current pain. (And that’s an understatement.)
According to the story, the poor boy was so strong in his ability to endure pain that the fox kept on eating into his body until the boy fell down dead.
This was told as an example of the extreme stoicism of the Spartans and the boy’s extreme fear of punishment under the conditions of the army child-solider camps. Oops, my bad there, I mean, “the Spartan training and loyalty.” Please see https://www.ancient.eu/article/342/the-spartan-education/ for one source of this information, which I first encountered in a textbook in 3rd grade. (Due to the limitations of the human body when faced with extreme physical pain and/or blood loss, I suspect this story is largely apocryphal, like a twisted version of George Washington and the cherry tree.)
Sooooo, what have we really learned? Was it admiration of the boy’s strength and discipline?
Don’t be like the Spartan boy. He let something kill him because he wouldn’t open his mouth about it. I don’t know what was going through his mind in this supposed scenario, but it must have been a mixture of fear, determination, pride, and stubbornness. And that’s what killed him.
Don’t act like that traumatized child soldier, paralyzed from an instilled inability to admit mistakes or weakness. The world is not waiting to descend upon you savagely, full of rage and punishment, if you ask for what you need – or for what you want, for that matter! Come in out of the cold. Knock on the door. If you knock long enough, someone will show up to see who it is.
I don’t want to die. I want to live.
There is a dark side to strength that whispers that you have to keep proving it, that unless you’re exercising your strength in the midst of difficulty and deprivation, you don’t have a right to claim it. “Use it, don’t lose it” says the voice of self-sabotage, which is actually just your survival mentality. But it’s wrong.
You do not have to keep struggling for the rest of your life just to prove that you can. Thank your strength for everything it’s done for you, pat it on the shoulder, and tell it to sit down and rest for a while. I’ll be taking it from here. You’ve earned a break, strength. I won’t forget you. You don’t have to go away. You won’t be erased. I’m going to go get us what we need; you stay here and I’ll call you when I need you. Sometimes when we don’t have much else going for us, our strength/independence is what we craft our identity around. It’s horrifying to think of losing the only thing you have to be proud of, to envision the horror of becoming no better than anyone else. But you don’t have to be better than everyone else to be different, special, morally acceptable, and free of shame.
If your mental health gets bad, tell someone, and then keep telling and trying new things until you get the meds or the work/life balance or human interaction or counseling that you need. Fine is not your final resting place. You can aim higher than that. You don’t have to settle for white-knocking it through every day, or dragging yourself along with every last ounce of your strength. Please, I promise you, life can be so much better than you can even imagine right now, and it’s closer than you think it is. Like, crazy close.
When I got sick in China, several friends offered to bring food to my house. I said no, never having had to take a sick day before in my life. What’s the worst that could happen? Well…those pneumonia antibiotics were hella strong. Like, wobbly balance and racing heartbeat strong. Help would have been nice. Now fast forward. When my roommate here got sick, her sister brought over fruits, and her father brought over kindling and firewood and started our fire that day. I watched her support network rally around her and walk into our home to do easy, ordinary tasks for her, and I felt something cracking inside me – “Is it really that easy? Can you just have things like that if you ask? Are people that willing to help?“
Some people are not able, or, unfortunately, unwilling, to help you. That’s okay, just ask someone else. Just keep moving. I’m thinking of one man who laughingly refused to haul up firewood from our basement, and another who agreed but forgot. (I should ask him again. He told me to always ask if we needed anything, and he meant it.) My mother always used to say, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.” Don’t be shocked if it’s not family or lifelong friends, but new friends and acquaintances that step up to help. Don’t ever feel bad for creating new friend groups, new support circles, and finding your tribe. Proverbs 27:10 says “Better a friend that is near than a brother far away.“
There is SO much more to who you are than your ability to “take it.” You don’t need to prove anything. You deserve a full, beautiful, thriving life. The only question to answer is, Do you want to be a person with a fox chewing on them, or not? No buts. It is absolutely that simple.
Let self-preservation drown out your other pesky instincts when it really comes down to it.
Open your mouth, so you can finally get that fox off your back.