At the Sacred Landscapes Natural Lifemanship Conference I had the privilege of hearing gifted story teller Bill Woodburn share a Korean folktale called “The Tiger’s Whisker.” In this story, a young woman named Yun Ok is distressed because her husband has returned from the war a cold and distant man who no longer responds to her bids for affection and attention despite her ongoing efforts to connect with him. In desperation, she visits a wise man who lives up in the mountains above her village and asks him for advice. He tells her that he can concoct a potion to help her regain her husband’s love, but that it requires a tiger’s whisker in order to be effective. Yun Ok returns to her village discouraged and defeated at this news. How could anyone safely obtain a whisker from such a menacing predator?
As the days pass, and Yun Ok’s husband continues to withdraw further and further away from her into his darkness, her loneliness becomes unbearable and she sets out with a bowl of rice and meat to find a tiger who might be willing to part with one of his whiskers. She leaves the bowl of food outside a cave where she knows a tiger makes his dwelling, and sits quietly under a tree with her terrified heart beating out of her chest, to see what will happen. Sure enough, a tiger pokes his head out of his lair, sniffs the air, and cautiously approaches the bowl. After looking around, he devours the rice and meat, and then retreats back into his cave.
Every day, patiently and persistently, Yun Ok brings the tiger some food, each time sitting nearer to the mouth of the cave while he eats her offering. Eventually, she sits close enough to touch him, and one day she does just that; reaching out her hand ever so slowly to caress the orange and black stripes on his back, holding her breath in fear. The tiger arches his back into her hand and makes a great purring sound deep in his body.
The following day she gathers up her courage and asks the tiger if she may pluck just one whisker from his giant head. In response, the tiger lays his head in her lap. She can feel the warm weight of him cradled in between her legs. The golden glow of his eyes shines directly on her face and his breath brushes her hands as she gently pulls a whisker free from his cheek and bows to him in thanks.
Yun Ok tucks her prize into her pocket for safekeeping and rushes as fast as her feet can take her back to the wise man in the mountains to bring him the news that she has won over a tiger and procured a whisker for the potion that will restore her husband to her. With joy she produces the silvery white whisker from the pocket of her dress and places it in his outstretched palm. The wise man holds the long, stiff whisker up to the light and studies it for a moment before turning and throwing it into the fire that burns brightly in the hearth of his mountain hut. Yun Ok gasps in horror. The weeks and weeks of waiting and working to gain the tiger’s trust all destroyed in an instant! “What have you done?” she cries, wringing her hands.
“My dear,” says the wise man, taking her hands gently in between his own gnarled ones. “You do not need a potion to win back your husband. You already know exactly what to do.”
After Bill finishes telling this story, he asks each of us to offer the most compelling or striking image that comes up for us as we listened to it. I am immediately struck by a picture of the brave young woman with the tiger’s head in her lap and share this with the group. Bill responds, “I know many women who frequently hold a tiger’s head in their lap.”
His simple statement slammed into my heart with devastating impact. How many times have I, and so many women I work with over the years in my counseling practice, held a tiger close? Perhaps we are so frozen from past trauma that we don’t (or can’t) see the danger, or we forget our value and accept the treatment we think we deserve? Do we mistake the purring of a predator with a currently full belly for safety rather than momentary satiety, missing the teeth and claws ready to spring into action when hunger or rage strikes again? Do we normalize the unpredictability of the other’s behavior because it feels familiar and therefore comfortable?
Tigers come in different stripes. Some come in the form of overtly abusive relationships, where through the threat of harm if we don’t comply, we come to believe we are worthless and deserve being treated with disdain, contempt and punishment. Others are more subtle, appearing friendly, even harmless, purring softly as they sidle up and slide into our laps. Eventually, we go numb under their weight and only later look down, startled to realize we are bleeding from a thousand tiny cuts from claws slowly sinking into our flesh.
Then there is the paper tiger, truly harmless and well intentioned, who we mistake for the dangerous version due to the hyper-vigilant threat detectors operating in our traumatized brain and nervous system, primed by earlier maltreatment to see danger everywhere we look. Trauma can both numb and over-activate our survival system, leading us to either ignore even obvious signs of danger, or see danger everywhere, whether it is actually present or not.
What tigers have you allowed, even welcomed, into your lap? Which ones have you pushed out of your lap only to realize later they were made of paper and meant no harm, perhaps even wanted to help? Trauma recovery allows us to accurately assess and appropriately respond to danger. Keep pursuing healing. Learn who your real tigers are and how to deal with them. You are worth so much more than you know.