Long ago, before I ever had an idea to get into my current occupation, I read a folk story in an anthology. It was somewhere around middle school, and the stories were geared at that level– simple and straightforward. I have a vague memory that the story came from somewhere in Africa, but I could be wrong in that– memory is a fallible thing.
In the story, a boy goes to the river and encounters a magic fish. The fish says it will grant him a wish, and he wishes to always be happy. As happens in these tales, the wish granting entity asks, “Is that really what you want?” The boy can’t really see any down side to it. So the wish is granted. When he goes back to his village, his house has burned down. But he’s happy. Why? Because of his wish– he’s always happy. People from his village think that’s kind of weird. Then the boy’s mother gets sick, but he’s still happy. A fierce beast chases him, but he’s still happy. After a few more of these events, people are starting to be extremely upset with him–no matter what bad things happen, he’s always happy. He even realizes– happily, because that’s the only feeling he can feel– that there are times to be sad, times to be scared– you shouldn’t always be happy. He seeks out the magic fish and changes his wish (because the story has an appropriately happy ending) to wish that he will have the emotions that match the situations he’s in.
I love the story’s simple wisdom. The theme has appeared elsewhere– “unto every thing there is a season” as Ecclesiastes says. It’s true that we seek out happiness, excitement, satisfaction, and other positive emotions, and we don’t seek out negative emotions like anger, fear, and sadness (or in some cases maybe we do). But when sad things happen, it’s more than OK to feel sad– it’s inescapable. When scary things happen, being scared is built in– our primitive ancestors who weren’t afraid of scary things didn’t pass on their genes.
Being able to feel the emotion that’s appropriate to the occasion is sometimes a goal for someone in therapy. Having permission to feel one’s appropriate emotions can come from within, from a friend, or from a therapist. I like being happy– of course. But I don’t want to always be happy.
If anyone recognizes the story & can get me the source, please do. Or other folk tales with the same theme. Thanks!