This is part of my series on stories. You can read an introduction here.
The songs “The Crane Wife 1 & 2” and “The Crane Wife 3” by The Decemberists are a beautiful retelling of an old folktale. The story is narrated by a lonely, poor man in the midst of a long, cold winter. One night, he finds a crane crippled by an arrow in its wing. He takes pity on the distressed bird and nurses it back to health, after which the bird flies away. Shortly thereafter, a woman appears at his house; they fall in love and are married. Though they are happy together, their poverty persists and their circumstances turn dire. The wife says she can save them by weaving cloth to sell, and begins to work on her loom in a room alone, hidden away from her husband. As their fortunes turn for the better and their wealth increases, the man’s greed begins to take over. He is no longer content with the company of his wife, but forces her to work to make them more money. He does not notice that the cloth she produces is stained with blood, and she is wasting away. He finally sees her at the loom and realizes she is the crane he saved and the cloth is made from feathers she plucked from her crane form. Upon her true form being discovered, the crane flies away and the man is left alone to live in guilt and regret.
While the story alone is heartbreaking, the music allows us to feel the emotions more deeply – joyfully warm at times, hauntingly mournful at others. We feel the man’s loneliness, the bird’s pain, and their sweet love, followed by her despair as she works, and his grief at losing her. In its most basic form, it is the story of a man who is given a great blessing for a kindness done, but loses everything when his greed causes him to forsake his blessing. It is a love story gone all wrong; there is not a happy ending. It is a story of self-centered love conquering other-centered love.
While this story evokes sadness and a feeling that it’s not supposed to end this way, this sad ending is a more accurate depiction of the reality of relationships than the happy ending we crave. It’s easy to take the tale’s morals and determine we will be thankful and not be greedy, but it is not so simple to change our actions. By our very nature we are narcissists. We continually pursue our own desires, destined to the tragedy of the man in the story. We can only be changed by something outside of ourselves.
I see evidence of this in my life daily. Like the man in the story who chose to feed his insatiable greed over caring for his wife, I use others and am blind to their needs and cares. Instead of carrying the burdens of my friends, I focus on how they can carry mine. Instead of working with my husband toward mutual edification, I push him to conform to my desires. Instead of seeking God’s glory in my life, I concentrate on the advancement of my own name. I choose my own interests above the interests of others because I love myself first and foremost.
All of us, left to our own natural, sinful inclinations, will always choose ourselves first. But the man’s tragic ending doesn’t have to be our ending. This destructive self-love can be conquered. Just not by us.
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
An outside force must act to change our nature. The sin of self-love is such an intrinsic part of us that it must be cut out – an operation that can only be done by the Holy Spirit. God transplants the sinful hearts of His people with clean hearts, and we are then able to respond to Him in faith and repentance. As regenerate people, we now have a new nature and a new heart. Instead of pursuing our sinful, base desires, we now seek what is good and holy. We can enter into relationships seeking the other person’s welfare instead of our own. We can put our narcissism to death and sacrificially love others.
The beauty of regeneration is that it is solely God that works, and He does so when we are pursuing our own glory and kingdom. Before our hearts are changed, we challenge God’s right as King and make ourselves a god. It is precisely in the midst of this violent rebellion that God meets us and changes us. Now we can see the greater, fuller life available to us when we are no longer absorbed with ourselves.