Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Stone Soup: A Parable
Once upon a time, there were some travelers headed for a town some miles away. This being before the days of mass transit, they were going on foot, traveling as a group.
One chilly evening after the day's trek, they were all gathered around the fire and some of the group started talking about cooking a communal meal with everybody pitching in. They had just about decided on doing that when one of them, a middle aged woman with conspicuously high cheekbones spoke up and said, "Ah, if only I had a stone. this would be a perfect night for some delicious stone soup."
"Stone soup?" said one the group. "I've never heard of that. How can you make soup out of a stone?"
"Oh, trust me, it's absolutely delicious" she replied. "And just the thing for a chilly night like this. But I don't have a stone, so...."
Another member of the group piped up, asking, "What's in stone soup? What's it taste like?"
"Oh, it's hard to describe" the woman,whom we'll call High Cheekbones said with a wave of her arm. "I can't really tell you,but once you've had it, you'd love it! So delicious! But of course, without a stone, well, no sense even talking about it."
Another man chimed in, saying "Well, if all you need is a stone, I saw some nice ones back by that river we passed. I could go and get a stone for you."
"Oh, wonderful!" said High Cheekbones. "You do that and I'll make the soup. Best thing you ever tasted."
So the man dutifully got up from the fire and walked back towards the river to get the stone.
While he was gone, High Cheekbones continued to talk to the others abut the stone soup, how good it was and how they were all going to love it.
After about twenty minutes, the man, whose name was Hugo returned to the camp with a round stone about as big as a man's fist. "Will this do?" he asked High Cheekbones.
"Yes, that's fine", she replied. "Oh, but I'm going to need a pot. And some water."
Another man, Ernest, stood up and said, "I have a cauldron. If I go get you some water, can I have some of the soup?"
"Why certainly" said High Cheekbones.
"You know", said Hugo, "If you had mentioned we needed a pot and water, I could have gotten them while I was there, and we could start cooking the stone soup right now. This way, we have to wait for Ernest to come back from the river. And what if he spills some of the water? He'll have to go back again."
"Well", replied High Cheekbones, "That sort of thing happens with a big project like this. But instead of complaining, just think about how delicious the stone soup is going to be when it's done. You're going to absolutely love it!"
About twenty minutes later, Ernest returned with the cauldron and the water, and Hugo, on High Cheekbone's orders, placed the stone in the bottom.
"What happens now?" said Hugo."Are you going to put it on the fire?"
"Oh,yes, that", sighed High Cheekbones. "I guess we're going to have to figure out some way to to hold the pot over the fire, aren't we? Any ideas?"
"Why of course", replied a third man, LeRoi. "What you need is a trestle made out of two sticks and a pole in between to hang the cauldron on. I would have volunteered to do that before, but no one asked me. Can I have some soup if I go ahead and put that up?"
"Why certainly", said High Cheekbones.
"That's going to mean another delay" said Hugo. "Couldn't you have thought of that before?"
"I can't imagine why you're so mean spirited" High Cheekbones snapped. "It's almost as if you're trying to hog more of the soup for yourself and deny others the opportunity to share in this great project!"
In due course the trestle was completed and the water and the stone placed over the fire.
Several of the other travelers had heard from High Cheekbones over and over again how wonderful the delicious stone soup was going to be, and boy, did they want some!
"Y'know, I was wondering", said one woman named Delores, "Can stone soup have onions in it? I'm taking some onions to market to sell, and I'd happily contribute a couple of them if I could have some of that delicious stone soup..."
"Well, why not?" responded High Cheekbones. "I've made it that way before, and it's really good with onions.You have my permission to just go ahead and cut them up and put them in."
That started a whole stampede of offers. Another traveler contributed salt, pepper and spices, others offered potatoes, carrots, peas and parsnips, and one man even provided a chicken carcass.Still another, a crockery trader, offered the use of bowls and a large ladle. All were promised a share of the stone soup and all were convinced how absolutely marvelous it was going to be.
After awhile,the fragrant aroma of the soup filled the campsite. Finally, High Cheekbones produced a large tureen from her own belongings and filled it to the brim with the soup. Then she announced to the rest of the group that the soup was done. She then called each traveler by name and served them in turn.
As High Cheekbones doled out the soup to the others and they began to eat, they noticed two things. First of all, the soup, while it was certainly welcome was simply ordinary chicken vegetable, and not the delicacy they had been promised. And second, that they had each received a lot less soup than they expected, and certainly less than High Cheekbones.
The first to voice this discontent was, as you would imagine, Hugo.
"Wait just one minute", he cried. "This is ordinary chicken vegetable soup, and pretty average chicken vegetable at that.We could have made this ourselves, and we were just about to before you came along with this marvelous plan for stone soup. What going on here?"
"Yeah", added Mark, who had contributed the spices. "And I notice you got your soup first, and more than any of us. The amount of soup I got doesn't even cover the cost of the spices I put in!"
"I can't believe what I'm hearing from you two" retorted High Cheekbones. "I create a project that results in something that benefits all of us, and you do nothing but find fault. Okay,you have your spice business, good for you. But you didn't build that alone. The community pays taxes for the watchmen on the roads to make sure your shipments don't get robbed, they pay to maintain the roads, the ships that bring you your spices use wharves we all pay for...so why would you be so greedy as to not want to give a little something back?"
"But I pay those taxes too!" shouted Mark. "Isn't that enough giving back?"
Hugo said, angrily,"You know, I think this whole idea of stone soup was just a trick to get High Cheekbones a free meal. We were talking about making soup on our own anyway. We provided all the stuff to make it, we provided all the labor and if you think about it, we could have done this a lot quicker and more efficiently on our own. The only thing she really contributed was that nonsense to convince us all about how delicious stone soup was. And in the end, she helped herself first and took more than any of us!"
"Wait just a minute here!", High Cheekbones snapped back. "I represent the community, and I organized the stone soup project for everyone. It was my organizing ability and leadership that got everybody the soup and saw to it that it was, you know,spread around instead of being limited to just a few special people."
"Then how come you got yours before anyone else and took more than anyone else?" Mark asked with a puzzled look. "The way you organized things, the soup took longer to make, it cost us more and except for you, we ended up with less soup at the end of it. It still seems somehow like this was all about you getting a free meal".
High Cheekbones unsuccessfully tried to stifle a belch (she really had eaten a large amount of soup)and gave Mark a look of utter disdain for a long time.
Finally, she shook her head and said, "Don't you know anything about how government works?"