We read a lot of fairy tales in our house. From a very old volume of Grimms’ fairy tales — broken spine, faded pages — to a collection of more child-friendly interpretations of the board book and golden-spined variety, our bookshelves are bulging with fairies and witches and magic.
This past weekend, we revisited “Snow White.” Since this telling was bound to a board book, sparse in words but abundant in illustrations, the story moved swiftly. There was no time for character development or context.
The whole plot hinges on something to the effect of: The queen gazed into her magic mirror each day and each day she was told she was the most beautiful in all the land until she wasn’t — and so she sent her huntsman to take care of the problem.
The condensed storytelling style of a board book really drives home the insanity of the plot. I get that the queen is prideful, but she’s really so focused on her looks that she has an assassin on speed dial just to thin the competition?
Of course, fairy tales are rich in symbolism and allegory. They are born out of particular contexts and have been passed down from one culture to the next. I am not going to attempt an exegesis of “Snow White” here.
But what I will say is this: I was struck by that plot pivot while reading the version we had on hand this past weekend. It feels so contrived to say that a person could be so absorbed in their own good looks that they’d resort to violence. It feels like little more than an easy plot device.
After all, we all look in the mirror each day. Is your response ever: I have to have someone murdered! Unlikely. At best, my response is, I need to do more push-ups.
This is all beside the point. Because there is something worth paying attention to in these magic mirrors and prideful executions. And beauty has nothing to do with it.
I’m struck by the fact that the queen’s entire identity is bound up in her sense of beauty. She is beauty, the most beautiful. And because the plot is so sparse, that’s literally all we know about her. And so, when that one defining piece of identity is called into question, she feels threatened. She has become so attached to this one facet of herself that she cannot see beyond it. She is beauty.
I wonder if we don’t find ourselves trapped in similar ways. Certainly, I won’t claim to be the most beautiful person — you can easily dispute that by scrolling down to my photo — but I do know that my identify can get caught up in my writing, in my role as a father or even in my own spirituality — I am a spiritual person, I know things about spirituality, etc. When those parts of myself are challenged — better writers, more joyful fathers, wiser spiritual figures — my own self-worth is suddenly called into question.
If I’m not this thing, than what even am I?
I wonder if you, too, have similar experiences. If you, too, have put too much emphasis on one facet of yourself. If you, too, find that your entire existence feels called into question when you encounter others with the same skills, experiences or insights as you.
And then, how do you respond? Hopefully you don’t have a huntsman on speed dial, but it’s not hard to imagine frustration, doubt or jealousy bubbling over and becoming unkind words, uncharitable thoughts or even small acts of minor sabotage.
St. Ignatius reminds us that the enemy of our human nature wants us to gorge ourselves on swollen pride, to think so highly of our own talents and so desperately about our own station in life that we focus on nothing other than ourselves. The antidote is twofold: We hold all things lightly — including our talents and gifts — so as to cultivate a disposition of indifference. We don’t need to be the best; we need only bask in our belovedness.
And second, we cultivate a disposition of cura personalis: We recognize that we are more than our job or passion, more than our weaknesses or our failings. In fact, there is always more to us to discover, to unfold, to bring into the world. We care for our whole person.
And so, when we gaze into our own magic mirrors and see the talents and beauty of others, let us repeat as our mantra these words from Scripture: “If one part [of the human family] is honored, all the parts share its joy.” (1 Cor 12:26)
Eric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, Small Wonders Magazine and more. His next book, My Life with the Jedi: The Spirituality of Star Wars, an exploration of Star Wars through the lens of Ignatian spirituality, is due out in February 2024 from Loyola Press. Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat.