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A Little Happier: Do You Know the Famous Story of the Fox and the Sour Grapes?

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I love maxims, koans, aphorisms, and teaching stories of all kinds. And so I love fables, especially Aesop’s fables (Amazon, Bookshop). Because I love these kinds of stories so much, for a long time I assumed that everyone knew them as well as I did—but I’ve learned that many people aren’t familiar with these stories.

So here’s one of my favorites. You may have heard people use the phrase “sour grapes”—that phrase comes from this story.

Here’s my version of this classic fable:

Once upon a time, a fox was traveling through the countryside, when he spotted a beautiful bunch of ripe grapes hanging from a vine. The vine was bound along the branch of a tree, and the perfect grapes hung right above the fox’s head.

The fox jumped to take a bite, but couldn’t reach the branch. So he backed up to take a running leap, and again fell short. He tried over and over, then sat down.

Then he shook his head. “What a fool I’ve been,” he thinks. “Why, just look at those grapes! They’re obviously sour. Why have I been wasting my time on a bunch of sour grapes?” And with great disdain he trotted off.

Aesop’s moral: “There are many who pretend to despise and belittle that which is beyond their reach.”

This is a very useful story. It surprises me how often I fall into this trap—of deciding that something’s not worth having, if I fear I can’t have it.

In the diary of writer Virginia Woolf, I was struck to see her reminding herself of the importance of avoiding this sour-grapes attitude. She wrote:

Years & years ago…I said to myself, walking up the hill at Beireuth, never pretend that the things you haven’t got are not worth having.

I find myself turning this phrase over in my head often: “Never pretend that the things you haven’t got are not worth having.

It’s easy to act like the fox with his grapes, but it means denying the truth about what we really want, and that form of self-deception can be destructive.

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