There’s an old story I often think about. I learned it from the famous 1947 picture book Stone Soup (Amazon, Bookshop) by Marcia Brown, but it’s a story that has been told in many versions for more than three hundred years, and different versions teach different lessons.
Here’s my version:
Once upon a time, a traveler was trudging down a country road when he came to a little village. He had no money, and he was very hungry. These were lean times, and he knew that most people had little to give.
He knocked on the door of the first house he came to, and when a woman opened it, he asked, “Could you spare a bit of food for me?”
The woman was poor herself, and didn’t have much food on her own shelves, and she was suspicious of strangers, so she said, “No, I don’t have any food to give,” and shut the door.
The traveler went to two more houses, and got the same reply.
He could see that the villagers were all peeping out of their windows to see what he would do next, and he decided to try something different.
This traveler was a man of tricks and cunning. He was clever and selfish, and he decided to find a way to persuade the villagers to feed him, and, he hoped, to give him some money as well.
After some reflection, he walked into the woods where no one could see what he was doing, found a fair-sized stone on the ground, washed the stone with water from his canteen, wrapped it in a cloth as if it were very precious, and stuck it in his pack.
He walked back into the village and knocked on the door of a fourth house. When a man opened it, instead of asking for food, the traveler said, “Please, may I borrow a very large pot from you? And may I have some water? I’m hungry, and I want to make stone soup, and all I lack is water and a pot to put it in.”
The owner of the home was a reasonable man. “I can lend you my biggest pot and give you water to fill it,” he answered, “but I warn you, I have no food to spare.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” said the traveler carelessly. “I have my stone, so I don’t need anything else.”
In the open, where any nosy neighbor could watch what he was doing, the traveler built a fire and put the pot of water on to heat. Then he unwrapped his stone with great ceremony and carefully lowered it into the pot with a big spoon from his pack.
A few minutes later, he made a show of tasting something delicious from his spoon.
The owner of the pot was watching from his doorstep, and because he was a curious fellow, he couldn’t resist drawing close. “What are you making?” he asked.
“Stone soup—delicious!” said the traveler.
“All you need is a stone?” said the villager.
“To be sure!” said the traveler. “But this isn’t just any stone! It’s a soup stone that makes a wonderful soup. The soup is very good right now, but, I must confess, to be truly excellent, this soup would benefit from a few carrots. I wish I had some carrots.”
Impressed, the villager said, “Well, I think I can spare some carrots,” and he ran to get them.
His next-door neighbor was also curious, and she joined the two men who were busy around the pot.
“What are you making?” she asked.
“Stone soup!” said the villager. “This man has a stone that makes an excellent soup, can you imagine? But it needed a few carrots, so I gave those.”
“Of course, if it had potatoes, then it would be even more delicious,” added the traveler. “But potatoes aren’t really necessary.”
“Well, if it’s just a few potatoes, I could spare those,” said the woman, and she hurried to get them.
When she returned, she saw that more people had gathered. One by one, eager to make the contribution that would make this miraculous stone soup truly outstanding, they each added something – beef, cabbage, onions, milk, salt, pepper.
“Good people,” cried the traveler at last. “My stone soup is ready. Everyone grab a bowl, I want to share it with you all!”
“What a generous man,” the neighbors said to each other as they each hurried to bring a bowl and spoon from their homes. “How kind he is to allow us to share in this miraculous soup!”
As they ate, the people of the village and the stranger laughed and talked together, and the villagers marveled at the stone that could make such good, rich soup from nothing more than water.
When they had all finished their meal, the traveler announced, “Thank you all for your hospitality. Now I must be on my way, for I have a long journey ahead of me.”
While he was preparing to leave, the villagers quietly conferred. Before the traveler put his pack on his back, their leader spoke up. “Please,” she said, “please let us buy this stone from you! We’ve gathered a handsome sum, and would be very glad if you would take this money with our deep thanks, and let us keep the stone.”
The traveler considered, then answered graciously: “As you know, this stone is very valuable, but in thanks for such a happy afternoon with such charming people, I’m willing to make the exchange.” He pocketed the money, handed over the stone, and vanished down the road.
I’m often reminded of the story of stone soup. For me, it’s a reminder not to make the mistake that the villagers made. It’s all too easy to believe that someone else has figured out a magic solution, that this person has a quick fix that could easily make something desirable happen. But it’s very likely that the magic fix is an illusion, and instead, I need to do the hard work of adding a little of this, a little of that, if I want to get the result I want.