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The Fable of Can and Could

May 21, AD 2013 22 Comments
George_Bellows_-_New_York (1)

New York, George Bellows (1882-1925)

Catholic Free Press

This story won’t be new to anyone who has read the 1890 elementary textbook, Catholic National Reader, Book Four, but since that number of people may not be very great in 2013, I want to share a charming, poignant story about two people named Can and Could. I took some liberties for brevity.

Could held himself in great esteem, and was always dreaming. “If I were rich, I could…” He felt blessed with a benevolent disposition, and in his imagination he thought of a great many projects for doing good on a grand scale. Can was a simple young woman, not great or so well-dressed. She went about her life neither sauntering nor scheming far into the future. She scarcely knew what a project was.

One day Could was riding a crowded bus and the conductor inquired if any of the gentlemen would like to give up his seat. A sick man wanted to ride the bus and it was very cold outside. “Like!” thought Could with a laugh. “Who would like to be outside in this cold?” And so Could stayed in his warm seat and thought of new laws he might pass to improve the transportation system. No one should have to walk sick in the cold.

On the same day Can, having finished her chores, entered a store to buy something to eat. Inside there was a child carrying a basket much too heavy for her small frame, and the shawl that she wore was fallen from her shoulders and dragged in the muddy snow. “What happened to your shawl?” Can asked. The little girl said her mother was too ill to go to the store, so she sent her daughter instead. The girl could not hold up her shawl to keep warm lest she drop the basket. ”You’ll die from the cold,” said Can. Then Can tied up the shawl, helped the girl sell the items in the basket, and walked with her back to her home where she made the sick mother’s bed.

That night Could feel asleep in his arm chair by the fire in his comfortable home reflecting on all the acts of justice his new laws would bring, while Can cooked a stew so she might return to check on the poor family the next day. The moral of the story? Of all the ills that human kind endure, small is the part which laws and kings can cure.

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Hello, and thank you for reading. My name is Stacy Trasancos. I am a wife, mother of seven, and joyful convert to Catholicism. I write from my tiny office in a 100-year-old restored Adirondack mountain lodge that overlooks a small spring-fed lake. Read more about me here. Find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, or contact me by email. God bless you!
  • http://aol Jim

    Gee, I wonder if that applies to dogma, too. : )

    • Howard

      @Jim — That is a strange thing to say. Do you even understand what a dogma is? It is a statement about things as they really are, not a command about what to do. They are more like the statement, “Cholera is caused by bacteria,” than the command, “Give that woman lots of chicken and rice soup and some antibiotics.” So yes, in a sense dogmas do not directly fix the world, but ignorance of them, like most any kind of ignorance, can create new problems, and knowledge of them can help develop workable solutions.

      • http://aol Jim

        It is a statement about things as they really are, not a command about what to do.

        At one time rocks were solid and didn’t move. Today we know
        they are anything but solid and they do move on a microscopic
        level. We will spend the next million years unlearning things
        because nothing is as it seems. the problem with the Church
        is that it sometimes makes rules up about how they think things
        are and then change them when it doesn’t fit. See Adam and
        Eve. In eastern deism this condition it called maya, illusion.

  • Michael

    “Of all the ills that human kind endure, small is the part which laws and kings can cure.” But it’s not an excuse not to try to enact laws to improve society. While there might be disagreement in some of the goals and some of the approaches there can be remarkable agreement if we try.

    As an example on the Bangladesh factory deaths

    “That [38 Euros] is what the people who died were being paid. This is called slave labour,” he said. “Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us – the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity. How many brothers and sisters find themselves in this situation!

    “Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God!

    Except for the God part, you’d probably find many non believers willing to agree with this. We need to organize our society in a way that forces Western companies to ensure both safe working conditions and a living wage.

    • Howard

      Yes. Change the laws when you CAN, but don’t just sit around doing nothing useful and daydreaming about the good you COULD do. The real good we CAN do is usually more local, more concrete, more limited — and more important. Hey, I vote, and I’ve written to my congressmen, but the truth of the matter is that those things only salve my conscience, they don’t actually change anything.

      • Michael

        If they don’t change anything why did you do it? Clearly you think they can. Yes, work to make changes at a local level but also work to enact changes at a larger level.

        And the situation of the Bangladeshi workers is a good example. Let companies know that you are not going to buy their product unless they implement safe working conditions. But as the same time pressure your political representative to lessen or eliminate this economic slavery.

        • Howard

          I do it for the same reason the gunners on the HMS Hood fired that one last shot as their ship went down. It’s an act of defiance with very, very slim chance of success.

          • Michael

            I’ve been fascinated by the Hood and its story. There’s a fascinating account of it by Ludovic Kennedy the BBC journalist who served on the HMS Tartar, a tribal class destroyer, in that pursuit. It’s one of my prized books.

            But you don’t have to view it as desperate. Change can and will happen.

          • Michael

            Or the story of the HMS Jervis Bay. Seemingly futile attack but saved many lives in its hopeless action.

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  • http://athousandgeneration.blogspot Anna Yager

    Thanks for posting this story. There are so many like that – stories that illustrate truths simply and powerfully – which have been forgotten in the rush to “improve”, “modernize”, “upgrade”. This post is like finding a precious jewel on the side of the path.

  • Mjeck

    The turn of the century seems to be a golden age for the church, which i greatly admire. This is a wise parable; one that i try and practice every day. Unfortunately, the modern age pushes us to “think big!” And imagine the possibilities….make the impossible, possible.

    Being humble takes guts, imo

    • Howard

      The turn of which century? :-) At first I thought you were talking about the one 13 years ago. Although there’s good as well as bad in the Church today, I’d scarcely call this a “golden age”!

      • Mjeck

        I’m a fan of Pope Leo

        • Howard

          I understand. I often feel as though the Popes of a century or so ago were able to deal with more advance, grown-up questions because they could take basic theological literacy for granted. That obviously can’t be done today. This leaves us with documents like FIDES ET RATIO. I’m not complaining about what was said in it; I’m complaining that something that obvious needed to be said to adults. Too often my reaction to a “controversial” statement by a Pope is nothing more than, “No kidding.”

          • Mjeck

            What you just described is how I feel about Pope Francis.

            I’m not sure how he’s been received by Catholics; however his message – Albeit obvious – Is quite refreshing.

  • Mjeck
  • Gregory

    Nice piece. Sad to say but the Cans are becoming an endangered species. “Screw thems” are what’s filling that void.

    • Bobby

      Actually Cans are still plentiful and continue to do their work quietly and without fanfare. You don’t see or hear of them because they do their work person to person. “Screw Thems” are just noisier, that’s why there seems to be more of them. Boycotting companies is often successful and I agree that it is a good way to change a company’s way of doing business and its labor practices, but I am loathed to have government involved in much of anything today. If a company is pressured by consumers to change their way and they start to lose money as a result they will change. More laws are not usually the answers that result in much good being done without someone else being hurt.

  • Norman

    Incredible story! Thank you!

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  • Emilio

    I’m afraid the first two of Johnson’s original lines seem less true these days. The other two, though less memorable (and off-topic) remain as true as in George III’s time:

    “How small of all that human hearts endure
    That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!
    Still to ourselves in every place ensigned
    Our own felicity we make or find.”