Sunday, June 22, 2008

How a story can shape your life.

A friend who is mentoring another mutual young friend of ours on his CV, how to conduct interviews and basically start his career after many years of learning, was talking about how he used stories in interviews to tease out a bit about a candidate- their values, insights etc.

He then asked me which story sticks out for me?

Well, I can literally think of thousands. In any given day, there would be stories that give me new insight, but upon reflection, believe it or oldest memory of a story, and one that probably shaped my life more than I realised, is the story of Heidi. Yes, she of the Swiss Alps- the creation of Johanna Spyri.

I first heard it when I was about 3 years old, and growing up in Johannesburg,South Africa. I had no reference point for either mountains nor snow- or goats for that matter!

My step-grandmother, who was a kindergarten teacher, introduced me to the story by reading it to me from a book with beautiful large illustrations- snow-capped mountains dominating every page. We didnt have TV in South Africa at that time (roundabout 1964/5) and years later, as a teenager, the fantastic Japanese anime series of Heidi came to our TV screens (late 70's early 80's and I lapped it up- it was so energetic and special.

But, back to grandma's lap and my first encounters with this story. I wept for little Heidi being orphaned, then dumped with a grumpy unwilling hermit-like grandpa she'd never met, by an unsympathetic aunt, and then slowly watched how she coped, and watched her optimistic and sunny personality infect and charm all around her- with she herself refusing to be beaten by circumstances.

Just when she achieved harmony and happiness, at age of around 7 or 8, the adults of her family again sent her away to Zurich to be educated (and cured from backward Alpine life) and stay with the wheelchair-bound Klara and the dreadful bully, Mrs Rottenmeier, Klara's governess. There too, she turned adversity into possiblity, learnt to read and write with the sickly and depressed Klara, and in turn taught Klara optimism and eventually persuaded Klara to come and stay with her and her grandpa in the mountain, where she helped Klara to ditch the wheelchair. Heidi's influence also meant that she persuaded her grumpy grandpa to let go of his past anger and resentment and return to the village community and be integrated.

Wherever she went, Heidi drew on what she had learnt from previous situations to cope with new situations and turn the negative into positive. Her joie d'vivre helped to draw out the withdrawn, resolve conflict where possible and bring people together. Maybe she was a rescuer- I don't think so. In my eyes, she was an achiever who rode the waves of adversity, guided by a very strong inner values system.

Of course, I am re-telling this with much more insight and emotional awareness today, but in essence, that's what I learnt from that story when I was 3. I think in many ways, Heidi has been a personal role model and helped me to cope and triumph in difficult family circumstances as a child, keep myself emotionally intact throughout my life and effortlessly deal with change and the unknown.

The second huge impact it had was that it extended my world immediately. I was very curious about trying to work out the concept of Switzerland- another country that was far away and totally different to anything I knew. I tortured my grandma for hours because the story made me realise that the world didn't just consist of my backyard and what I was familiar with...but that the world was HUGE and full of magical places and cultures that were different and HAD TO BE VISITED AND EXPLORED! I think I became a global thinker at that point!

Its no surprise to me either that the story of Heidi has enduring currency across many different cultures of the world- with the Japanese anime series being translated into Spanish and topping the popularity ratings there. See

It's because it deals with a classical theme of "true grit", or as they say in South Africa: "Vasbyt"- shit happens everywhere!

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