November 23, 2012

What ''The Little Prince'' Taught Me About Relationships

Have you ever read The Little Prince? Maybe you were forced to read it in your French immersion class in High School. Maybe you've heard of it and recognize the iconic blonde child on the picture above, but have never read the book for yourself.

I think you should read The Little Prince. Everyone should read it. It is short, not very expensive, has a lot of illustrations and can move you in unexpected and incredible ways. Wikipedia tells me it is the most read and translated book of the French language, and one of the best-selling books ever published.

I will start by giving a little summary of the book with some key quotations, after which I will briefly discuss some of the key concepts and ideas.

Many people think of The Little Prince as children's literature, but it really is a book for adults.
This novella rests on the premise that adults, or ''grown ups'' are blind to the most important things in life, and are often more concerned about material, pecuniary things.
Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.

I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them. Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, “What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?” Instead, they demand: “How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?” Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him
The narrator is a pilot, and the story takes place in the Sahara. While in the desert, the narrator meets the little prince, a strange child who says he is from another planet. As he talk about his ''asteroid,'' we learn that it is very small; it has three volcanoes and one rose.

The Rose
The little prince invests a lot of time in his rose, providing for her every need and every whim. In addition to being ungrateful for everything he does for her, the rose blames him whenever she can.
Eventually, the little prince gets hurt, and leaves his planet.
"I ought not to have listened to her," he confided to me one day. "One never ought to listen to the flowers. One should simply look at them and breathe their fragrance. Mine perfumed all my planet. But I did not know how to take pleasure in all her grace. This tale of claws, which disturbed me so much, should only have filled my heart with tenderness and pity."   
And he continued his confidences: "The fact is that I did not know how to understand anything! I ought to have judged by deeds and not by words. She cast her fragrance and her radiance over me. I ought never to have run away from her... I ought to have guessed all the affection that lay behind her poor little stratagems. Flowers are so inconsistent! But I was too young to know how to love her..."

After visiting a number of planets and asteroids, the little prince comes to Earth to find what he is looking for. He tells the pilot about some of his experiences and findings.

As he travels the Earth searching for men, the little prince makes two significant acquaintances.
First, he comes across a rose garden. The little prince is shocked: he thought there was but one rose in the whole universe! When he finds out there are many beautiful, identical roses, he is disenchanted.
I thought that I was rich, with a flower that was unique in all the world; and all I had was a common rose. A common rose, and three volcanoes that come up to my knees-- and one of them perhaps extinct forever... that doesn't make me a very great prince...
And he lay down in the grass and cried.

The Fox
After he leaves the flowers, the little prince is approached by a fox. The young boy wants to play with the fox, but the fox replies that he must be tamed in order to give the little prince his trust. Then the fox goes on talking about what taming means:
To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world..."
Time goes  by and every day, the fox comes a little closer to the little prince. The fox explains that in order for a relationship to be established, one needs rites and regularity. Eventually, the fox and the little prince tame each other; they love and need each other. Every day they look forward to the moment they will see each other again.
With that in mind, the little prince goes back to the garden of roses, but with a very different perspective:
"You are not at all like my rose," he said. "As yet you are nothing. No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one. You are like my fox when I first knew him. He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world."
"You are beautiful, but you are empty," he went on. "One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you-- the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars [...]; because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or ever sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.
The little prince then returns to the fox, one last time before he has to leave. Parting is heart-wrenching. As a last gift to the little prince, the fox reveals a secret:
"Goodbye," said the fox. "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. [...] It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important. [...] "Men have forgotten this truth," said the fox. "But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose..."
The little prince then continues his journey.

Those are really nice quotes but what's the point?
Many doctoral theses have probably already been written on the little prince and his relationship with the rose and the fox, so I will not try to reinvent the wheel.
What I love about this story is that is interesting and complex on so many levels.

It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important... I remember how in Economics we were taught that things only have the value that we give them. Gold, for instance. Its price is ever-changing and fluctuates with the market. If gold was not pleasing to the eye or if it was not a key component of a number of products and machines, would it still be so valuable? Probably not.
This logic works as far as things are concerned, but what about people and relationships? Do people only have the value that we give them? Sadly, this is what many people seem to think, but I do believe that people have intrinsic value that finds its origin in their human nature.

I do think that many relationships are important to us because of all the time and energy we invested in them. Do you have a friend that you have known forever and have shared many important moments with? Have you spent so much time together that you can hardly imagine life without them?
When I think of the people close to me, this definitely rings true. All the time you have spent together and all the things that have happened cannot just be erased. These people will always be a part of you, somehow.

If you tame me, we shall need each other... I find interesting the idea of taming in The Little Prince. At first, the fox and the little prince are indifferent to each other (''you are like my fox when I knew him. He was just a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes''). Trust seldom comes instantly. The fox needed time to trust the prince, and the prince needed time to trust the fox. As they invested more and more in each other, the relationship developed. As he got to know him better, the little prince came to appreciate the fox individually: he was not longer like any other fox. He was his fox, he knew him and was known by him. (''I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world).

You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed... I wondered for a long time what this meant and how I should interpret it. We do not often think of relationships in terms of ''responsibility'' or ''obligations.'' Hanging out with friends seems like an easy and effortless thing to do. What does it mean to be responsible for what we have tamed?
I think this is connected to what I wrote about how people become a part of you and you become a part of them. From the moment you are a part of someone, you have a responsibility. Once you are a part of someone, you cannot separate yourself from them without causing harm. You have great power to either bless them or damage them. With great power comes great responsibility. In the same way, we become responsible for what we have tamed.

If I could have it back, all the time that we wasted, I'd only waste it again
I would love to waste it again
Waste it again and again and again


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