Not So Little Boxes

Last post I talked about our love/hate relationship with the personal boxes we put ourselves in.  But there are some socially imposed boxes that we are put in because of our race, our culture, our religion, our physical makeup, etc. that carry with them stereotypes of behavior and expectation that are even harder to escape.

Remember the folk song about the calf “bound for market” who is told by the farmer to stop complaining.  “Who told you to be a calf?  You should be like the swallow and have wings.”  I always loved this song, but recently I’ve begun to see the subtle irony in the story.

I identify with the calf, not the farmer, or the swallow.

Why is this?   Is it because there is an unwritten subtext in the song?  Probably.

Calves don’t have a choice to grow wings and fly away.  The only way the calf is going to escape being sold and slaughtered is if there is outside intervention.  That’s not the calf’s fault.  If we look at it from this point of view, the song, using the voice of the calf’s exploiter — the farmer — is blaming the victim for his victimhood.  The farmer has put the calf in a box that says, “All calves are meant for slaughter.”

This was not the original intention of the author, Aaron Tsaytlin (1899-1974).  The song was written in Yiddish during the Nazi era and translated into English first by the composer of the music, Sholom Secunda, and later by Arthur Kevess and Teddi Schwartz.

There is no voice of the farmer in the original translation.  The song is written from the point of view of the calf who asks the wind, “Why can’t I fly like the swallow, why did I have to be a calf?”  The wind replies, “Calves are born and soon are slaughtered with no hope of being saved.  Only those with wings like swallows will not ever be enslaved.”  The voice of the wind is not the voice of an exploiter, but a neutral voice.  It seems to be saying, “This is the way things are.”  This doesn’t blame the victim, but it also leaves the victim feeling pretty hopeless! (

Interestingly, the second English translation, the one written from the farmer’s point of view, was written in 1956, after the defeat of the Nazis.

There is a “script” in our society that says that people shouldn’t complain about being victimized.  They should just “grow wings” and pull themselves out of the situation, out of poverty, out of racism, and all the myriad other deep mires people find themselves in.  In other words, if you are victimized, it’s your own fault and it’s okay to exploit you!

In the case of calves, it is obvious that we humans, born with physical advantages that privilege us and make us able to exploit the calves, are the only ones who can help them escape their circumstances.  In Dancing the Deep Hum when talking about this song I said:

….. I [can’t] help but imagine a stampede of cattle rising up against their human oppressors.
Mad cows, rather than mad cow disease!   (DDH, p 86)

We all know hundreds of “scripts”, stereotypes, boxes that people are placed in because of their race, religion, country of origin, size, age, etc.   Even those  who happen to be born with privilege are put in a box which makes it easy for them to fall into the role of exploiter, a box that can also be difficult to break out of!

We all of us, exploited and exploiter, need to be willing to ask for, and offer, help to break the boxes of stereotype we find ourselves in.   Frankly, I think if we can’t find ways to do this our world doesn’t have much hope of surviving.

How do we deal with this hard stuff?  Take a deep breath, let it out with an audible sigh!  Shake out one hand, and then another!  Shake yourself all over!  Let out another deep sigh and head out into the world!  (For more about sighing and shaking go to!)