The Dark Side of the Pooh
“Jerome Bernard Parent, what are you doing?” my mother asked.
Uh oh. Full name. I’m in trouble.
“I’m just reading,” I said, showing her the book.
“That’s rude for a guest to be doing. Now go outside with the other kids and play.”
“All right,” I said. “In a minute.” I peeked down the stairs. All of the grownups, including my mother, were drinking and talking loudly about the upcoming election featuring Kennedy and Nixon. I went back into the bedroom and settled behind the dresser where no one could see me. I was ten and several families had gathered for a BBQ. I had gotten tired of the Lego wars the other kids were playing and discovered A.A. Milne on their bookshelf. Eventually the other kids went outside while I continued my reading. In terms of difficulty, the books were too easy for me, but I was fascinated by The House at Pooh Corner and had to read both books. The scolding I got at home for not socializing with the other kids was worth it. It also wouldn’t be the last time Winnie the Pooh got me in trouble.
I recently saw a list of top 50 books everyone should read. Nestled in the middle of the pack was Benjamin Hoff’s book, The Tao of Pooh. It is Hoff’s book, which helped me understand my fascination for “the bear of very little brain” as well as provide valuable living advice. But it also caused me problems because of my insistence on sharing my fondness for both the 100 Acre Wood and Taoism with others. Exhibit A is the parent who called me and complained because I taught an enrichment class that showed Winnie the Pooh cartoons and paired them with some readings from Hoff’s book. He claimed I was teaching kids a cult religion. I patiently explained that Taoism is not a religion. It is a philosophy, like Existentialism, Epicureanism, or Confucianism. I tried to explain that the point of the class was to see familiar things in a new way. I wanted students to develop new perspectives on art not new religious beliefs. That didn’t satisfy him and he went off on a rant about why we didn’t teach Christianity. I explained that we did teach the history of Greece, Rome, and Christianity in the Middle Ages. He did not understand what the history of Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had to do with Christianity. The conversation went downhill from there.
It often goes this way when we try to share a favorite book with others. If they’re not in the right mental frame, it just doesn’t have the same impact we hope it will have. Where I saw a delightfully simple way to deal with life’s problems, others saw a nefarious plot to subvert the primacy of Christian thought. Some people can’t separate religion from philosophy. It can be difficult, and it cost me a long-term friendship.
I had known Wes and Cheryl for a long time. We all taught at the same school. My wife and I accompanied them on their first date. It was the second marriage for both, and we all had our first children within weeks of each other. When our kids were young we spent a lot of time together. But then the kids got older and their girls were not interested in hanging around with our boys and vise versa. We moved to different schools and didn’t get together so often except for the occasional golf game. Then Wes had a stroke. It was a mild one, but I was one of the few teachers who visited him in the hospital. He really seemed to appreciate that and made an effort to stay in touch more when he got better. We set up a monthly breakfast and had a good time sharing dad and husband stories.
Over time, our breakfast conversations started getting more profound. Wes wasn’t used to having an inner dialogue. He had had a bit of a tough upbringing and tried to compensate by planning for every contingency. But life, in the form of his first divorce and now the stroke, shook him up. He hungered for something beyond the fundamentalism of the church Cheryl made him go to. He told me that church for him was more of a social club. He wanted to know about my death experience. He wanted a different way of looking at life. So I gave him The Tao of Pooh. And that was the end of our friendship. Cheryl refused to let him go to breakfast with me anymore. She was convinced I was trying to “convert him to an eastern religion.” A few years later, Wes died of cancer. I didn’t go to the funeral.
What is it about such a simple book that freaks some people out so much? A book labeled humor although it can also be found in the philosophy section. Pooh gives advice about how to find home by listening to your tummy. About guarding your treasure from heffalumps and woozles. How many times, like Pooh, do we find what we are looking for when we give up looking for it? How many times have we guarded ourselves against imaginary threats while the real danger comes from a world that grows “floodier and floodier.” The essence of Taoist thought is that we should work with the laws of the universe rather than against them. How can this be controversial? Taoists grow their gardens on flat ground instead of hills because they know that gravity always wins. Pooh exemplifies such effortless living. A tubby little cubby all filled with fluff turns out to be much wiser than Owl, Rabbit, or a whole host of other noise makers in our lives. Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear a hunny pot calling.