Heroine or Hapless One?

(Note:  This is the third article based on the poetry of Shel Silverstein.)

Another one of my favorite poems in Shel Silverstein’s book Where the Sidewalk Ends is “Melinda Mae.”  Here is the poem.

Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae,

Who ate a monstrous whale?

She thought she could,

She said she would,

So she started right in at the tail.

And everyone said, “You’re much too small.”

But that didn’t bother Melinda at all.

She took little bites and she chewed very slow. . .

. . . And in eighty-nine years she ate that whale

Because she said she would! 

The poem is accompanied by two illustrations.  The first depicts Melinda as a very young woman sitting at a table with her mouth open wide, fork in her hand, and the whole enormous whale on the table in front of her.  The second illustration shows her sitting in the same chair as a very old woman with a satisfied smile on her face and the skeleton of the whale on her table.

Heroine or Hapless One?

Are we supposed to admire Melinda?  After all, she stayed true to her word and accomplished a seemingly impossible task.  Are we supposed to admire goal-oriented people who accomplish great things despite skepticism, criticism, and nearly insurmountable obstacles?  

I propose there are very high costs to Melinda Mae’s accomplishment, enough costs to trigger pity rather than admiration, but before I explain them, I will write a few words about goal-setting.

Two Types of Goals

The first type of goal is the one most people understand and set for themselves–outcome goals.  These goals almost always have a specific, concrete end result and are usually time-limited.  Melinda Mae’s goal to eat a whale was very specific, although quite long-term.  A dieter who decides to lose a certain number of pounds by a specific date is a classic example of an outcome goal.  New Year’s resolutions are usually of this nature.  Educational, financial, and business goals are most often outcome goals.    People who have outcome goals are typically admired, and a common assumption is people without goals are at best aimless and at worst wastrels.

The second type of goal is less known and therefore, less practiced–process goals.  (Read “To Hell with Success”)  Here there is rarely a specific outcome or a set time to accomplish the result.  That is because most process goals are ongoing and life-long.  They lead to transformation rather than modification.  

Several years ago a friend introduced me to a new way of making New Year’s resolutions that changed how I made them from being outcome goals to becoming process goals.  She suggested that I choose a single word for the new year, a word to serve as a reminder and guide as to how I intended to grow and expand during the coming year.  

That first year I chose the word “bold.”  By holding that word in my awareness, I approached my everyday decision-making differently.  For example, if someone invited me to a social gathering where there would be a lot of people I did not know, rather than saying “no” in order to avoid the discomfort of meeting new people, I said “yes.”  I happened to be dating at that time, and I used “bold” to prod me into asking seemingly unapproachable women to go out with me despite being fearful of rejection.  I became willing to try new foods, watch new movies, read different books.  Being bolder became a process goal which led to me taking more risks and becoming more adventurous.  I had a very transforming and fulfilling year!

On Eating Whales

Back to Melinda Mae.  What were the costs to her for accomplishing her goal of eating a whale?  Foremost is the probability she had no other life.  In all likelihood, she had no time for family, friends, travel, play, personal growth, or anything else.  How could she be balanced, flexible, adaptable, or open-minded with such an intense focus?  She probably became obsessive, compulsive, and reclusive.  What did a lifetime of eating a whale contribute to the well-being of others and to raising the level of human consciousness?  And finally, I have often wondered what she did after she ate that whale.

Are you attempting to eat a whale?  In other words, are you so focused on outcome goals that you have become narrow-minded with tunnel vision?  Have you lost the capacity to enjoy the present moment because you are preoccupied with the future?  Are you stressed out daily because you are not accomplishing as much as you think you should?  Have the people around you become either obstacles to overcome or tools to get what you want?  Any “yeses” to these questions most likely mean you have become obsessed with your outcome goals to the detriment of living a balanced, well-rounded, enjoyable life.

As the new year approaches, consider setting some process goals.  I am playing with a number of possibilities for my “word” for 2022.  I may settle on “generous.”  I would like to keep that word at the forefront of my awareness when it comes to my time, my resources, my treatment of others, and my relationship with myself.  Maybe you could pick a word like abundance or perhaps gratitude?  Whatever word you choose, let it be something a bit more meaningful than eating a whale!    

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