So much of what is happening now in political and public life (and private life too?) reminds me of a story I heard so many years ago that I can’t remember when I first heard it. It sounds a little bit like Little Red Riding Hood at first, but it couldn’t be more different.

A young girl who believed in goodness and mercy and all that nice stuff was walking along a path one day when she heard a moan in the bushes beside her. Investigating, she found an injured snake who said he was wounded by some mean person who had stepped on him. “Oh, you poor thing!” she cried. “I will take you home with me. I will tend your injury and make you well!” And she did. She fed him porridge and milk, made him a cozy bed by the fire. The day soon came when the snake was well, and she picked him up and held him to her bosom, overjoyed that she had made him well. He bit her. She dropped him to the floor and screamed in anger, “You ungrateful snake!” As he slithered toward the door, he replied, “You knew I was a snake when you took me in.”

The little story ends there, but it prompts all sorts of “discussion questions”. What is the moral of the story? Well, there are several, really: Did the snake deceive her, or did she deceive herself? Not too much reflection is required before we must admit that the snake did not deceive her. Should he not have bitten her? Why not? As he pointed out, he’s a snake. It’s what snakes do.

The girl deceived herself. And that’s where the story becomes the cautionary tale it is. There are several vanity roots that cause the girl’s self-deception, but here’s a suggestion:

Other people are mean and bad, but I am sweet and good. Some evil person injured this snake, but I will heal him. He will be grateful to me and praise my kindness. I see myself as compassionate and kind. (Has my mirror lied to me?)

Very little I can think of is more surely fatal than the interior snake that tells us we are good, or that we’re better than other people, or that our good deeds protect us from evil.

And if you are a snake, it is best to avoid people who are morally prissy. They will hate you just for being a snake. They are dishonest by nature and cannot tolerate one who is honest.

And finally: Snakes are born wise. Humans gain wisdom only by experience.