The Little Prince: An Elegy for the Lost Wonders of Childhood

the little prince“Every child is an artist,” Picasso once observed, “the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”  Much like the artist, whose sensitivity can discern the potential for revelation in the seemingly mundane, children possess a marvelous capacity for wonder.  Not yet made weary by experience, children remain astonished by the most ordinary of things: a dandelion blowing in a summer wind, the miracle of an insignificant speck of a planet containing the only known life in existence, the discovery of a mathematics principle as basic as 2 + 2 equals 4.  Nothing is too banal to capture their curiosity.  But it is a sorrowful fact of the human condition that the frolicsome wonder of childhood must give way to the sensible concerns of being an adult.  As we age, we cease dancing to the carefree melody of the joyfully frivolous and settle into the monotonous rhythms of obligation and habit.  Playing, puttering, daydreaming: all are eventually sacrificed on the altar of mortgages and car payments. 

This is what French writer, poet and pioneering aviator Antoine De Saint-Exupery mourns in his timeless classic The Little Prince — a delightful part spiritual autobiography, part parable of the tragedies of becoming a too serious, too solemn adult.  With splendid wisdom and irresistible, tender-hearted charm, Saint-Exupery tells the story of a pilot who’s misfortunate enough to crash his plane in the Sahara.  Believing himself to be stranded alone in the desert, the pilot’s stunned to stumble upon a mysterious golden-haired boy, whom we come to learn is the prince of the story’s title.  A visitor from a faraway asteroid, the Little Prince recounts his extraordinary odyssey across the universe where he encounters first-hand the absurdity of so-called “rational” adults.  

For a champion of imagination as spirited as Saint-Exupery, adults’ most substantial flaw is their severely limited powers of perception.  The magic of children is their willingness to look at the world in new ways, ways that might be preposterous or downright bonkers.  Whereas adults are often constricted by customary modes of thought and stifled by linear logic, children are open-minded enough to detect possibilities unseen by their adult counterparts.  After becoming fascinated by boa constrictors at age six, the pilot sketches his first picture, a drawing of one of these monstrous snakes digesting an elephant he simply entitles, “Drawing Number One.”  But anytime the young pilot shows his drawing to an adult, they insist it’s a hat.  This sort of bland, run-of-the-mill interpretation, he realizes, is a symptom of a widespread malady, being a grown up:

“But he would always answer, ‘That’s a hat.’  Then I wouldn’t talk about boa constrictors or jungles or stars.  I would put myself on his level and talk about bridge and golf and politics and neckties.  And my grown-up was glad to know such a reasonable person.”

boa constricterBesides losing their glorious powers for imagination, adults preoccupy themselves with things that fundamentally don’t matter.  More than any other character, the businessman exemplifies Saint-Exupery’s distaste for the heartless achievement-orientation of adults.  Obsessed with quantifying all he owns, the businessman barely lifts his head when the Little Prince bids him good morning, a tragic symbol for the way adults prioritize the petty and pointless pursuits of success-seeking over the soul-affirming miracle of meaningful human bonds:

“Good morning,” the little prince said to him.  “Your cigarette has gone out.”

“Three and two make five.  Five and seven make twelve.  Twelve and three make fifteen.  Good morning.  Fifteen and seven make twenty two.  Twenty two and six make twenty eight.  I haven’t time to light it again.  Twenty five and six make thirty one.  Phew!  Then that makes five-hundred-and-one-million, six-hundred-twenty-two-thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one.”

“Five hundred million what?” asked the little prince. 

“Eh?  Are you still there?  Five-hundred-and-one-million-I can’t stop…I have so much to do! I am concerned with matters of consequence.  I don’t amuse myself with balderdash.  Two and five make seven…” 

little prince banker

A poignant reminder of Annie Dillard’s simple yet profound observation that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” the businessman squanders his finite hours counting stars that hold no resonance for him simply so he can claim them as his own.  Like an ambitious Wall Street trader who bears long, miserable hours for the sake of status, the businessman’s existence is an exercise in futility, a lifetime of burdensome labor for the bragging rights of having money- a conceptional notion that, Saint-Exupery argues, essentially means nothing.  Much like the money we devote our lives to accumulating, his stars are an abstraction that have no real practical utility:

“Five-hundred-and-one million what?” repeated the little prince, who never in his life had let go of a question once he had asked it.

The businessman raised his head.

“During the fifty-four years that I have inhabited this planet, I have been disturbed only three times.  The first time was twenty-two years ago, when some giddy goose fell from goodness knows where.  He made the most frightful noise that resounded all over the place, and I made four mistakes in my addition.  The second time, eleven years ago, I was disturbed by an attack of rheumatism.  I don’t get enough exercise.  I have no time for loafing.  The third time– well, this is it!  I was saying, then, five -hundred-and-one millions–”

“Millions of what?”

The businessman suddenly realized that there was no hope of being left in peace until he answered this question.

“Millions of those little objects,” he said, “which one sometimes sees in the sky.”

“Flies?”

“Oh, no.  Little glittering objects.”

“Bees?”

“Oh, no.  Little golden objects that set lazy men to idle dreaming.  As for me, I am concerned with matters of consequence.  There is no time for idle dreaming in my life.”

“Ah!  You mean the stars?”

“Yes, that’s it. The stars.”

And what do you do with five-hundred millions of stars?”

“Five-hundred-and-one million, six-hundred-twenty-two thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one.  I am concerned with matters of consequence: I am accurate.”

“And what do you do with these stars?”

“What do I do with them?”

“Yes.”

“Nothing.  I own them.”

“And what do you do with them?”

“I administer them,” replied the businessman.  “I count them and recount them.  It is difficult.  But I am a man who is naturally interested in matters of consequence.”

The little prince was still not satisfied.

“If I owned a silk scarf,” he said, “I could put it around my neck and take it away with me.  If I owned a flower, I could pluck that flower and take it away with me.  But you cannot pluck the stars from heaven…”

“No.  But I can put them in the bank.”

“Whatever does that mean?”

“That means that I write the number of my stars on a little paper.  And then I put this paper in a drawer and lock it with a key.”

“And that is all?”

“That is enough,” said the businessman. 

“It is entertaining,” thought the little prince.  “It is rather poetic.  But it is of no great consequence.”

On matters of consequence, the little prince had ideas which were very different from those of the grown-ups.

the fox and the little prince

In an exchange that embodies the beautiful but oft forgotten sentiment that love is another form of attention, the Little Prince learns that the time he spends cultivating his stunning (if immodest) rose is what makes her distinct from all others.  Though the nature of love has puzzled poets and philosophers for millennia, Saint-Exupery conceives a rather uncomplicated definition, one that has much in common with Buddhist ideas of mindfulness: love is heedful care.  Sadly in the mania of our productivity-fixated culture, most grown ups proceed at too hurried a pace to devote the time meaningful relationships require:

It was then that the fox appeared.

“Good morning,” said the fox.

“Good morning,” the little prince responded politely, although when he turned around he saw nothing.

“I am right here,” the voice said, “under the apple tree.”

“Who are you?” asked the little prince, and added, “You are very pretty to look at.”

“I am a fox,” said the fox.

“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince. “I am so unhappy.”

“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”

“Ah!  Please excuse me,” said the little prince.

But, after some thought, he added: “What does that mean– ‘tame’?”

“You do not live here,” said the fox.  “What is it that you are looking for?”

“I am looking for men,” said the little prince. “What does that mean– ‘tame’?”

“Men,” said the fox.  “They have guns, and they hunt.  It is very disturbing.  They also raise chickens.  These are their only interests.  Are you looking for chickens?”

“No,” said the little prince.  “I am looking for friends.  What does that mean– ‘tame’?”

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox.  It means to establish ties.”

“‘To establish ties’?”

“Just that,” said the fox.  “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys.  And I have no need of you.  And you, on your part, have no need of me.  To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes.  But if you tame me, then we shall need each other.  To me, you will be unique in all the world.  To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

“I am beginning to understand,” said the little prince.  “There is a flower… I think that she has tamed me…”

“It is possible,” said the fox.  “On the Earth one sees all sorts of things.”

“Oh, but this is not on the Earth!” said the little prince.

The fox seemed perplexed, and very curious.

“On another planet?”

“Yes.”

“Are there hunters on this planet?”

“No.”

“Ah, that is interesting!  Are there chickens?”

“No.”

“Nothing is perfect,” sighed the fox.

But he came back to his idea.

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said.  “I hunt chickens; men hunt me.  All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike.  And, in consequence, I am a little bored.  But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life.  I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others.  Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground.  Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow.  And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder?  I do not eat bread.  Wheat is of no use to me.  The wheat fields have nothing to say to me.  And that is sad.  But you have hair that is the colour of gold.  Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me!  The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you.  And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.

“Please– tame me!” he said.

“I want to, very much,” the little prince replied.  “But I have not much time.  I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”

“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox.  “Men have no more time to understand anything.  They buy things all ready made at the shops.  But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more.  If you want a friend, tame me…”

“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.

“You must be very patient,” replied the fox.  “First you will sit down at a little distance from me– like that– in the grass.  I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing.  Words are the source of misunderstandings.  But you will sit a little closer to me, every day…”

fox

The next day the little prince came back.

“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox.  “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy.  I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances.  At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about.  I shall show you how happy I am!  But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you… One must observe the proper rites…”

“What is a rite?” asked the little prince.

“Those also are actions too often neglected,” said the fox.  “They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours.  There is a rite, for example, among my hunters.  Every Thursday they dance with the village girls.  So Thursday is a wonderful day for me!  I can take a walk as far as the vineyards.  But if the hunters danced at just any time, every day would be like every other day, and I should never have any vacation at all.”

So the little prince tamed the fox.  And when the hour of his departure drew near–

“Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”

“It is your own fault,” said the little prince.  “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you…”

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“Then it has done you no good at all!”

“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”  And then he added:

“Go and look again at the roses.  You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world.  Then come back to say goodbye to me, and I will make you a present of a secret.”

The little prince went away, to look again at the roses.

“You are not at all like my rose,” he said.  “As yet you are nothing.  No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one.  You are like my fox when I first knew him.  He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes.  But I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world.”

And the roses were very much embarrassed.

“You are beautiful, but you are empty,” he went on.  “One could not die for you.  To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you– the rose that belongs to me.  But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing.  Because she is my rose.”

And he went back to meet the fox.

“Goodbye,” he said.

“Goodbye,” said the fox.  “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” 

little prince rose

Translated into 300 languages and selling nearly 2 million copies annually, The Little Prince ranks as one of the most beloved books of all time.  But why has this novella remained such a cherished volume over the decades?  This enchanting tale continues to enthrall, I think, because it speaks to a hunger unending and universal: the desire to recapture the bygone wonder of being a child.

Pema Chodron on How Pain Enlarges Our Heart

German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche’s pithy aphorism “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is so oft uttered it borders on cliche.  But, like all timeless platitudes, his words endure because they capture a truth abiding and incontrovertible: pain- though unpleasant- is essential.  As satirist Russell Baker quipped, “I’ve had an unhappy life, thank God.”  Though most of us would happily forgo crisis and catastrophe, adversity fortifies the soul; indeed, it is the life tormented by hardship and misfortune, trauma and woe that builds the most resilient, courageous individuals.  Those unfortunate enough to lead a blissful existence never develop real moral character.  Not only that, but it’s a fact of life that to fully experience any emotion, one must experience its converse: there can only be satisfaction if there’s discontent, enchantment if there’s disillusion, hope if there’s despair.  After all, we wouldn’t giddily anticipate Fridays unless we had to return to the office three days later.  “What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?” Nietzsche once wondered.  To sidestep suffering, then, is nothing short of denying ourselves the magnificent heights of human potential.

young pema chodron

Though philosophers have preached the value of suffering for millennia, it remains our natural inclination to avoid pain at all costs.  Rather than meet the behemoth of pain boldly and stout-heartededly, we cowardly retreat, erecting all kinds of barriers to protect us from the intolerable discomfort of vulnerability.  But it is pain, Buddhist monk Pema Chodron suggests in her slim but imponderably insightful volume Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves From Old Habits and Fears, that reminds us of our shared human predicament and connects us with bodhicitta, the Buddhist term for “enlightened mind” or “open heart.”  In Buddhist tradition, pain is not something to flee but rather something to embrace as an inevitable part of life.  Despite our cultural aversion to anything difficult, hardship is crucial because it sheds light on the conundrum of the human condition and makes us kinder and more merciful.  When her mother dies and she has to sift through box upon box of her things, Chodron comes to the dispiriting realization that- though her mother cherished these belongings- they, in themselves, possess no objective meaning.  But rather than let such a distressing insight send her into an existential tailspin and ponder the grim futility of life, she uses pain as a portal to better understand the human plight.  Warm and boundlessly wise, Chodron comes to feel compassion for all the people who-like her and her mother- suffer because they attribute too much significance to the inconsequential:

Before we know what natural warmth really is, often we must experience loss.  We go along for years moving through our days, propelled by habit, taking life pretty much for granted.  Then we or someone close to us has an accident or gets seriously ill, and it’s as if the blinders have been removed from our eyes.  We see the meaninglessness of so much of what we do and the emptiness of so much we cling to.

When my mother died and I was asked to go through her personal belongings, this awareness hit me hard.  She had kept boxes of papers and trinkets that she treasured, things that she held on to through her many moves to smaller and smaller accommodations.  They had represented security and comfort for her, and she had been unable to let them go.  Now they were just boxes of stuff, things that held no meaning and represented no comfort or security to anyone.  For me these were just empty objects, yet she had clung to them.  Seeing this made me sad, and also thoughtful.  After that I could never look at my own treasured objects the same way.  I had seen that the objects themselves are just what they are, neither precious nor worthless, and that all the labels, all our views and opinions about them, are arbitrary.

This was an experience of basic warmth.  The loss of my mother and the pain of seeing so clearly how we impose judgements and values, prejudices, likes and dislikes, onto the world, made me feel great compassion for our shared human predicament.  I remember explaining to myself that the whole world consisted of people just like me who were making much ado about nothing and suffering from it tremendously.”

The miracle of pain is that it enlarges our hearts.  When we lie shattered after our partner deserts us, for instance, we join an infinite chain connecting millions of love lorn.  Suddenly, we can sympathize with anyone who has suffered a broken heart.  Empathy, tenderness, understanding: all are profound lessons pain can teach us:

When my second marriage fell apart, I tasted the rawness of grief, the utter groundlessness of sorrow, and all the protective shields I had always managed to keep in place fell to pieces.  To my surprise, along with the pain, I also felt an uncontrived tenderness for other people.  I remember the complete openness and gentleness I felt for those I met briefly in the post office or at the grocery store.  I found myself approaching the people I encountered as just like me- fully alive, fully capable of meanness and kindness, of stumbling and falling down and of standing up again.  I never before experienced that much intimacy with unknown people.  I could look in the eyes of store clerks and car mechanics, beggars and children, and feel our sameness.  Somehow when my heart broke, the qualities of natural warmth, qualities like kindness and empathy and appreciation, just simultaneously emerged.”

pema chodron

“How far that little candle throws his beams!” exclaimed Shakespeare when contemplating the far-reaching reverberations of a small, ordinary act of kindness.  However much we loathe its lessons, pain illuminates the world by instructing us in the vital ways of having a warm heart.