The Fern and the Bamboo: A Fable of Hope

15 July, 2017

We could say that the story of the fern and the bamboo is a fable of hope. Why? Because this story shows the true essence of resilience and perseverance. It reflects the importance of not giving up when we have to face an obstacle, a challenge or an unexpected problem.

We might not see any change and we might find it difficult to keep on going at a point where we don’t see any progress but instead stagnation or even regression. Of course this is a part of life and, without a doubt, multiple factors come into play when it comes to contemplating whether or not to stick to the path that we believe is leading us towards our desires.

But, what if we stop searching and discover that our objective wasn’t as far off as we thought? This is where a widely documented phenomenon in psychology and economics comes into play: loss aversion.

Emotional and cognitive mistrust around risks

We prefer to not lose than to win, and so we tend to pull out sooner to play it safe and not take risks. That’s why, when we evaluate what we could gain, we prefer to step back and avoid loss before reaching the benefit.

This loss could be emotional, economic or of any other kind. What’s clear is that if we bear this phenomenon in mind, we’ll be able to increase our chances of success in a specific situation.

As Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman suggested, our attitude towards problems depends on how we position the alternatives. So, if we think of a person, let’s call her Rosa, who’s been in a monotonous and boring relationship for 15 years, we can perceive that there’s a certain hook that’s preventing her from ending the relationship.

Whether Rosa makes the decision to end her relationship or not mainly depends on how she views staying in it. She has two choices that we’re going to share below, first in abstract terms and then more specifically in relation to this particular case:

  • If we consider the situation in terms of gains, our response will generally be one of aversion or mistrust towards the risk or the change. That is to say, if Rosa considers that emotional stability is more valuable than the need to discover new things, she will stay in the relationship.
  • If we consider the situation in terms of losses, we will prefer to take a risk and take a step forwards. That is to say, if Rosa believes that she needs a change in her life and that discovering the world is more necessary for her than having someone to turn to 24 hours a day, her predisposition will be more than evident.

The same thing happens when we have to deal with a bad day or a bad moment. If we believe that everything is bad, then we’ll probably sustain the belief that anything we do might make the situation worse. This will lead us to a high level of immobility and, as we know, immobility is incompatible with full living.

It is worth emphasizing this when it comes to considering what keeps us hooked and what is worth putting at risk to achieve our goals. It is also necessary for us to think about these details when we make decisions. That’s why it’s so important to make lists of the advantages and disadvantages of the different options that we consider plausible when it comes to deciding something.

The fable of the fern and the bamboo

One day I decided to give up: I quit my job, my relationship and my life. I went into the woods to talk with an elder who was said to be very wise.

“Can you give me one good reason not to quit?” I asked him.

“Look around” he replied. “Do you see the fern and the bamboo?”

“Yes”, I replied.

“When I planted the fern and the bamboo seeds, I took very good care of them. The fern quickly grew. Its brilliant green covered the floor. Yet nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I did not give up on the bamboo.

In the second year the fern grew more vibrant and plentiful, and again, nothing grew from the bamboo seed. But I did not give up on the bamboo.

In the third year still nothing sprouted from the bamboo seed. But I didn’t give up on the bamboo. 

In the fourth year again nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I didn’t give up on the bamboo. 

Then in the fifth year, a tiny shoot emerged from the earth. Compared to the fern, it was seemingly small and insignificant.

But then in the sixth year, the bamboo grew to 60 foot tallIt had spent five years growing the roots to sustain it. Those roots made it strong and gave it what it needed to survive.

Did you know that all this time that you have been struggling, you have really been growing roots?

The bamboo has a different purpose from the fern, but both are necessary and make the forest beautiful.”

Never regret a single day in your life. The good days make you happy. The bad days give you experience. Both are essential for life. Happiness keeps you sweet. Trying keeps you strong. Sorrows keep you human. Falls keep you humble. Success keeps you shining…

If you don’t get what you long for, don’t give up hope, perhaps you’re just putting down roots…

Reconsider your priorities daily

When we are immersed (or not) in a life project of whatever kind, we must ask ourselves what deserves the investment of time and effort like the bamboo. The most valued and most fruitful goals in the long term are those that we find hardest.

This fable is not the mythical “where there’s a will there’s a way”. This message is as unrealistic as it is exasperating and it deprives us of honest and healthy inner dialogue. What is worth saying is that if you truly believe something is possible and you have the strength to fight for it, it is worth working to achieve it.

Whether you achieve it or not, the journey is worth it. That’s where the importance of re-conceptualizing our possibilities and giving our all to water the seed of our bamboo a little more each day comes in. It all adds up, and so the emotional investment in what we want deserves a lot of consideration and care.

Let’s remember the message that today’s fable offers us: Trying keeps you strong. Sorrows keep you human. Falls keep you humble. Success keeps you shining… If you don’t get what you long for, don’t give up hope, perhaps you’re just putting down roots…