“The Tiger’s Whisker” is a Korean folk tale that speaks of patience, faith and the timebtable of the soul. A woman’s husband returns for a war and is not the same person who left. He comes home a mere shadow of his former self and withdraws into an icy silence. Unable to reach him, his wife seeks the counsel of the wise old woman in the village. She is told that there is a potion that can restore her husband, but the crucial ingredient is a whisker from a tiger who lives in a nearby cave. The woman must pluck the whisker and bring it back.
Such bravery is not commonplace, but the woman loved her husband very much and was determined to do it. So she set out one day with a plate of meat and got as close as she dared to the cave and left it there. The next morning, it was gone. So she again brought the food and left it a few steps closer. Day by day she continued, finally getting close enough that she could see the tiger on the path. She continued inching forward until she was within arms’ reach. Finally, she was able to reach out and gently stroke the tiger and when she felt that enough trust was established, finally plucked the whisker.
She ran back to the old woman gleefully and waved the whisker. “Now you can make the potion!” The old woman confessed that there was no potion. But if she could show such patience and fortitude getting closer day by day to the tiger until she earned its trust, surely she could do the same with her husband. And so she did.
That’s a deep story. Those of us who are wounded—and who isn’t?— need a lot of time and trust and feeling of safety before we dare open that wound to the air. The soul has its own reason for hiding and its own timetable for flowering. It can’t be forced or rushed or demanded. It’s a delicate affair and requires all the virtues the story praises.
I thought of this yesterday at the school carpool time. There’s a young student who I’ve taught for several years who has been rarely wholly present in my music class (and other classes as well). He curls up under his hooded sweatshirt or sits to the side playing fantasy games or looks at me with a blank stare as I give directions. Near the end of last year, I noticed a shift towards more participation and opening, mostly thanks to the patient efforts of his preschool teachers and parents and helping staff. But then in first grade, a new situation and back to the hiding.
But yesterday, I taught a guest class to his group and he was my partner and hey! he was singing a bit and playing the game with me and pretty engaged! That was encouraging. And then I saw him at carpool and said, “Hey, great job in music today!” He turned to walk to his car and then turned around and shouted to me, “Nice shirt!” A thousand miles were instantly crossed in those two simple words.
The tiger’s whisker had paid off.