Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
November 2007 - Volume 07, No. 8
The Third Wish
I consider myself fortunate
that when I was growing up, my parents read stories to us children. This
was before the days of television (at least in our home), and so the
primary media were radio, records (the 78rpm kind), and books - literally
hundreds of books. And from each medium in my childhood household, came
stories, lots of stories - from Loretta Young reading "The Littlest
a cherished 78 record, to the classic story programs on university
radio station WOI, Ames, Iowa, each Saturday morning as I cleaned my
room. (The memory of dust under my bedsprings and those stories are
My Dad was a Methodist preacher, so he knew the power of the old stories.
And my mother, from her English childhood, also knew the 'old home' of
myth and legend. She later developed her story-telling art to the point
where, in her later days, she traveled all over the State of Iowa as
a recognized virtuoso of her craft.
So I grew up hearing the stories, the old stories, lots of them. And
much of who I am today was formed by the patterns of those oft-told tales.
One theme or motif that keeps popping up in those tales is the gift
of three wishes.
The stories involve someone from the otherworld (perhaps an elf, or
genie, or the Lord himself) granting three wishes in response to a good
deed or as part of a bargain. The recipient (or sometimes the recipient's
wife) then carelessly uses up the first two wishes, leaving the remaining
third wish as necessary to undo the carelessness. (cf. many of The Grimm
Brothers stories, and also Aladdin.) The pattern is that (at least) the
first two parts of the gift are always wasted.
The 'lesson' of these stories has to do with the rash
and foolish waste of life's opportunities leading to regretful results
in the end. A modern-day example could be people who win the lottery
and end up in bankruptcy. Also there is the common aphorism, be careful
what you wish for.....
An adaptation I use sometimes in my client work is that
the third wish is still now before us. The first two were squandered
in anger, foolishness, self-centeredness, wastefulness, hoarding, immaturity,
victimhood, perhaps even innocence. All we have left is one final wish
- upon which everything now depends. An old Sufi saying puts it succinctly:
"We have three days left to live and two are gone."
There are those who have squandered all three wishes, and now all that
is left is the original gift of life granted at birth, with no additional benefits. Or, there are those who have squandered the first
two wishes, and the only one left is that upon which the rest of life
is dependent. It's virtually the same story each way. The time of squandering
must now be over. (And the popular spiritual myth of perpetually unfolding
possibility and prosperity here begins to show itself as a false god.
Yes, there really are limits.)
One client of mine sees his adult life now as (literally)
two thirds over. The first and second times each involved a different
and specific professional identity. Now looms the question of how to
form and live that most important third phase - his true life. It's
not an easy question, except for the temptation to ignore it and let
his previous life just "run
on" until his end. But the reason he's working with me is because
he somehow knows better than to evade this question.
This is not only true for those who have already
passed middle age. The real meaning of this "third wish" can
come to us at any age. And the lessons of the "three wishes" stories
are valid for whomever has the ears to hear.
Many folk, especially in my part of the country,
are finding economically that they have "run out" already. The "three wishes" gift
from trusting General Motors, or whatever beneficent god, has run its
course. What remains, no longer allows us a casual wish or careless decision.
The Third Wish is a demanding power to be reckoned
with - a difficult and pivotal time in which to live. And, in many
ways, it can become the time of our "true life" - when the
fuller meaning of our life and its purpose is finally broken open.
So, I encourage you, like the old stories teach us, to
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