Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
March 2016 - Volume 16, No. 3
Subscribe to this blog

The Fable of the Two Shoulders

In an oft repeated fable, a grandfather tells his grandson about an angel and a devil residing on each of our two shoulders - constantly contending. The grandson asks, “which one will win?” To which the grandfather answers, “the one you feed the most.”[1]

Yet it seems every culture on this shared planet of ours has a cosmology or at least a shared experience of contention native within each individual human person, as well as in the outside community. Now as in the fable, the contending parties may be considered outside entities, but still our experience is that they have entered our inner humanity or personhood as a battle for who’s in charge of what’s going on.

The integrity of the fable is that it still comes down to my own choice at any given time or within any given circumstance.

The Flaw we insert into the story

Sometimes we want to believe that if we feed one side, we can somehow starve or otherwise get rid of the other side. For example, if I can avoid temptation, temptation will eventually go away. Sure!

My favorite illustration is the “Whack-a-mole” arcade game I first found at a Flint Chuck E. Cheese location back when my kids were of that age. The name of the game itself represents the practice of repeatedly getting rid of something, only to have more of that thing appear. It’s a good representation of Sigmund Freud’s theory of neurosis, especially when the reappearance is frequently in a less or unrecognizable form.  

Human life is in the Middle

The more we come to understand what it means to be human, the more we recognize we do constantly carry the occupants of each shoulder. To be human acknowledges the constancy of both, and for us to willingly remain in the middle - for that’s where the fullness of life is found.  

Things falling apart

We’re living in a time of the lost middle. Almost a century ago, the poet Yeats warned of it:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….[2]

Look at our Congress. It was designed to be made up of two primary parties, each with their own integrity and political vision. The function of the congress was that each would then contend and negotiate (the art of politics), out of which functional decisions could emerge for the well-being of the commonwealth. Power was generally held in balance, and the purpose of our government was to protect and serve the “people.” But with the current loss of respect for each other and the ascendancy of human greed and unbridled narcissism, that vital center has become a vacuum that paralyzes the larger system, and prevents the work of a functional government by, for and of the people.

They act as if their goal is to obliterate the other side - again my false reading of the grandfather’s fable.

The rich get richer, the poorer get poorer, and the middle (as a centering class) is systematically obliterated. Without a middle, “things fall apart.” We’re seeing it now almost every single day.  

A mental health parallel is the currently emergent diagnosis of “bi-polar disorder,” with its increased shattering of the individual psyche as well as marriages, families, communities and institutions. Again - there is no center to hold things together. Sometimes we can put our hope in “drugs.”  Maybe that’s all we have left.  


Here’s another example: One of the great civilizing forces in the human world is marriage. Much of marriage counseling seeks to strengthen and make functional the relationships of two people initially committed to their mutual welfare, often to the raising of a next generation, and ultimately to the well-being of the larger community. Yet so often there is no mutual feeding of the center - that central mystery of committed relationship which is one of the great redeeming patterns of a healthy civilization. Sometimes I find that the marriage is “dead” and all that remains is a life of “quiet desperation” on the part of one or both of the partners. When one or the other doesn’t feed the relationship, the relationship often dies. A dying houseplant can frequently be resuscitated, brought back to life by a nurturing gardener. But a dead plant is forever a dead plant. There’s a curious truth that it takes two to make a relationship, but only one to end its life. Marriage is high-risk from the beginning. But the results of a marriage well nurtured is a joy and a blessing. I think it was Johnny Carson who said “remarriage is the proof of hope over reality.” 

Becoming the Enemy

There are numerous people and situations which easily represent what happens when the middle dies or is “wished away” by those who go the the “easy answers” of just one side of a polarity. The history of the world is filled with examples of one side (of any contention) trying to eradicate an “enemy” only to “become (just like) the enemy.”  This is why once a war is begun, it’s very difficult to bring it to an end.  

The deeper wisdom of the grandfather’s story

The grandfather’s story has a devil and an angel contending. One on each shoulder - as if it’s always a battle between right and wrong, good and evil. To me it’s not so much which prevails. What I trust is staying in the center, in the struggle or the tension between the shoulders. That’s where being alive is. That’s where the world is saved. That’s the center which is what we all need most to feed.  

The “place of the Transcendent”

When I draw this with my hands, I’ll have each index finger parallel but pointing in opposite directions. That’s a basic truth of human life - the conjunction of opposites.  

But happens there as well. When I draw it on paper or on my office whiteboard, I’ll have the opposites on each side, but in the middle I’ll also draw a line upward. That’s the direction that connects with what I call the “Transcendent.”  

Here are some examples: In a court of law, there is a prosecutor and a defender.  Justice (which is a Transcendent) emerges when each party argues well and faithfully - out of which a “truth” can emerge, which then a Judge connects with the prevailing “law” so that “Justice” is served.

In a religious setting, there is usually a law of God and there is human behavior. When these contend or personally wrestle, it’s in the center where the experience of God (a Transcendent) emerges. Otherwise we have only rules and structures, but no ‘life.’ The German theologian, Martin Luther wrote that each of us are “at the same time sinners and saints.” An old priest, hearing confessions on Saturday (in order that the faithful can receive Communion on Sunday with a ‘clean’ soul), will finish with the words “go and sin no more, and I’ll see you next Saturday.” That’s a great paradigm for wise mental health as well as how the fuller Life of the Church can be most gracefully lived. Many may call it hypocritical, but it’s also the secret of a fuller Life of being the Children of God. We continually contain both sides within us.

In the halls of our Congress or a legislature, it’s only when the legislators deliberate (respectfully engage) that governmental wisdom can emerge. The fruit of that deliberation is what serves the Constitution (the Transcendent they are each pledged to serve), and through the Constitution ultimately The People. That’s supposed to be the transcendent structure of our national life.  All the people are served and protected.

The secret of Communication

In each of these cases, and wherever the wrestling with life takes place, there is the magical art of human communication, the art of listening and thinking and speaking and honoring each other. In speaking and listening to each others’ truths, each other’s stories, each other’s experiences, we build relationships, and communities of mutual work, caring, and honoring. From this can emerge the (transcendent) results of human joy, creativity, commitment and play. And that’s the world we can each build from living what goes on between both shoulders.  

This is the deeper meaning of the grandfather’s story.  And I say to

Pay attention



[1] When I hear the story, the grandfather and grandson are Native American. But I’ve omitted that because devil and angel are not as specific beings in native cosmology. Instead I assume that from within our Christianized culture, which is great at dividing as well as unifying things, we’ve ‘borrowed’ from the Natives in order to add an extra layer of authentic wisdom to the fable.

[2] William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming” (1919).  This also can speak to the nihilism that followed the universal horrors of WWI.

This post has no comments yet.

Add a Comment

will be kept private

Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

FREE Monthly Newsletter

Whether you are a client or not, you can always benefit from some free monthly words of wisdom:
Your e-mail address: