This is a story I've used in countless places and contexts now. It seems to be immensely generative in drawing out wisdom from those who hear it. I learnt it from Cormac Russell, who's been a wise teacher and mentor to me for many years. I think Cormac traced its roots back to West Africa. But as with many oral traditions, there may have been some things changed and forgotten along the way. I was asked recently for a text of it, so here's how I'm (currently!) remembering it...
A village had been hit by a crisis that was threatening to overwhelm it.
The village elders got together, and decided that what they needed to do was go and ask the wise woman for help. So a delegation went to the wise woman's hut, a short walk from the village itself, and asked her to help them. She agreed, and told the elders to gather the whole village together under the big tree. And so the elders hurried back, and did as she told them.
When the wise woman arrived, she looked around at all the villagers, and then spoke. "I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know," she said to them. "Do you know what I'm going to tell you?"
The villagers were a bit puzzled, and one by one they shook their heads and said, "No. No, we don't know. That's why we asked you to come here."
"Well," said the wise woman, "then I'm afraid I can't help you." And she went away.
The elders were frustrated. This was not what they'd been expecting. They put their heads together again, and decided to try again. So the delegation went back to the wise woman, and asked her to please come back and address the village again. "We really need your help," they told her. And so she agreed.
Again, the elders went back, and gathered the whole village together under the big tree, and the wise woman came and spoke to them again. "I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know," she said again. "Do you know what I'm going to tell you?"
Now this time, the elders had given the villagers a stern talking to. "This time, give her the right answer!" they had said. And although the villagers were still pretty sure the answer was "No", they guessed the right answer must be "Yes". So with a mixture of shakes and nods of their heads, they replied to the wise woman, "Yes. Yes we do!"
"Well in that case," replied the wise woman, "you don't need my help!" And she went away again.
By this time, the elders were pulling out whatever remained of their hair. The crisis was big, and urgent, and they desperately needed help. What were they going to do?
Eventually, one of them came up with a cunning plan. And a third time, the delegation went back to beg the wise woman to return to the village. And a third time she agreed. And a third time she came and addressed the whole village under the big tree.
"I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know. Do you know what I'm going to tell you?"
And this time, the villagers had all been thoroughly briefed on the cunning plan. So half the village said "No". And the other half of the village said "Yes".
And the wise woman paused, and looked around, and a smile came over her face. And slowly, quietly, she spoke.
"Well in that case," she said, "talk to each other!" And she went away, and was never seen again.
I wonder what wisdom you hear in that story...