Two tigers – an adult and a child – are standing in the den of the older one. At hand is a recently slaughtered gazelle. The larger tiger digs in and gestures to his companion to do likewise. In Joseph Campbell’s words, “The little one backs off” and says, “I’m a vegetarian.”
Many moons earlier, a pregnant tigress had come upon a flock of goats one day around suppertime. Vigorously pouncing upon her prey, she went into labor, delivered a cub and died in childbirth. The scattered goats watched from a distance.
Meandering back to the grazing ground, the goats discovered this newborn tiger. Being possessed of strong parental instincts, they adopted him. He learned to eat grass and bleat. Campbell notes that “the grass was very bad for his digestive system. He couldn’t handle the cellulose.” Thus we have an adolescent tiger who is “a pretty miserable specimen.”
In time the goat herd is attacked and scattered by the adult male tiger. The adoptee, though, doesn’t have the instinct to run away like the other goats do. There he stands, unknowingly facing this bigger version of himself. The question to be addressed, clearly, is, ’Sup with this? Or, as Campbell puts it, “What, you living with these goats?”
The little tiger, embarrassed, bleats and nibbles at the grass. “The big fellow is mortified,” Campbell writes, analogizing the situation to that of a father dealing with a son who is rebelling at some family tradition. The elder creature takes the younger by the nape and sets him down by a pond. Where, for the first time in his life, the smaller tiger sees his own face in the still water.
The larger tiger roars, “You’re like me! Be like me!” That’s when he takes him to the den and serves up the rare gazelle meat. When the kid balks at partaking, the mentor shoves some meat down his throat. The young tiger gags, “as all do on true doctrine,” Campbell observes.
Notwithstanding the gag reflex, the younger tiger senses that something important is happening here. This is his proper food, nourishment that will calibrate his digestive and nervous systems. Moved by a force that is greater than himself, the youthful tiger lets out what Campbell calls a little “Tiger 101” roar. To which the mentor replies, “Now we’ve got it. Now we’ll eat tiger food.”
The lesson? Campbell says that we are all tigers living on Earth as goats. Much of our sociological and religious training tells us to be goats. Many who try to establish themselves as tigers at an early age meet with fatal consequences. But when we do our inner work, with meditation, mythology, symbolism, etc., we get introduced to the tigerness within. The issue becomes how to deal with that?
Campbell says the trick lies in wearing “the outer garment of the law [and] the inner garment of the mystic way.” That, he says, is “the great secret of life. [B]e tigers in the world. But don’t let anybody know it!”
Can I get an amen?
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.