Many of us are humming Taylor Swift's song, "Shake It Off". Yes, the melody is great, but it’s more than that; the message resonates with us. We've all had personal experiences when people say or do hateful things. We get lost in the pain of the experience until something shifts and we’re able to shake it off. But what does that really mean? "Shake it off" is not new wisdom. There’s an ancient parable that delivers the same message. It's about a farmer's old mule.
One day, the mule fell into the farmer's well. The farmer heard the mule braying in distress. He felt badly for the old mule, but after carefully assessing the situation, the farmer decided that neither the mule nor the well was worth the trouble of saving. Instead, he called his neighbors together to enlist their help in hauling dirt, to bury the old mule in the well and put him out of his misery.
The mule felt shovel after shovel of dirt hit him as it landed on his tender hide. As he realized what was happening, his panic escalated. He knew he was in danger of being buried alive. He struggled and squealed louder and louder to no avail. Soon he began to tire and he was forced to stop and rest. In that quiet moment, he realized that every time a shovel full of dirt landed on his back, he could shake it off and use it to step up.
Shovel after shovel of dirt landed on him. And each time he would shake it off and step up, shake it off and step up, shake it off and step up. No matter how startling or painful the dirt was as it fell on him, the mule fought against panic and kept shaking it off and stepping up. It wasn't long before the old mule, battered and exhausted, stepped triumphantly over the wall of the well. The very thing that seemed like it would bury him helped him overcome the situation.
Many times in our own lives, we fall into a well. It may be a well of loss, fear, or loneliness. Falling can feel life threatening – literally, threatening life as we know it. How do we shake it off? It seems there must be a moment when we accept what is, before there's a possibility of shaking it off. Like Taylor Swift and the farmer’s mule, we are not in control of our circumstances. Is it possible to accept what we can't control? We don’t have to like what’s happening to accept it. But can we come to peace with the circumstances so we can interrupt the struggle and move on?
For the old mule, acceptance comes with his fatigue. Exhaustion quiets his struggle long enough for a survival plan to arise. And the solution uses the same problematic circumstances that were designed to bury him. Taylor Swift copes with her situation in a similar way. Here’s how she describes it in the lyrics of her song:
“I got this music in my body and it's gonna be alright. 'Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play. And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake. I shake it off, I shake it off.”
Taylor realizes she has no control over “the players” or “the haters” who want to bury her. It seems to me she’s singing about accepting a bad situation. She shakes off her struggle with the circumstances and finds a survival plan that uses, in her words, "the music in my body" to write a hit song.
We learn from every crisis. Some appear to have the potential to bury us, yet they surface new inner wisdom - accepting what is, and the strength to shake it off and step up.