Thoughts on The Little Prince and Sharing

There is an old fig tree in the garden of the house we are renting. It is an old, powerful tree with a gnarled, thick girth and a densely branched canopy. On the hottest summer night, it is cool sitting beneath its many layers of broad green leaves. I would like to say I am reading Saint-Exupéry’s magical book, Le Petit Prince but that would be an exaggeration of my effort on this summer afternoon.

Rather, I am contemplating Le Petit Prince and thinking to myself, did Saint-Exupéry know he was creating a children’s story that would be read and celebrated the world over? Did Michelangelo know when he carved the ‘David’ out of a monster block of white marble that it would be admired for a long as people could get themselves to Florence to gaze up at it? My guess is that was their intention for every artist in the boot box of his heart hopes that one day he might paint or write or carve something that will endure.

I’ll leave the debate over the qualities of the ‘David’ and Michelangelo to the sculptors, but not ‘Le Petit Prince’, for Saint-Exupéry is of my tribe and trade. Le Petit Prince is a master work that will endure as long as people read. It is not the limpidity of the prose that makes it great, although this helps. Nor is it the brilliant surreal quality of a boy prince living alone on a planet so small it can only support a single rose and a single sheep. It’s the humanity of the story that it makes it great for it goes to the heart of what makes every human being, human. How do we share?

For we cannot live as human beings if we do not share. It is through sharing our talents, our food, our roses, our friendship that human life becomes possible. This is what makes the murders in Norway so anti-human. They are the anti-thesis of the Le Petit Prince. They are about building walls and protecting yourself, but without sharing we are just like any other omnivore on the planet. It is through the complex ‘business’ of sharing the fruits of our lives that art and commerce are created and civilization is born.

It’s a fragile concept easily fractured. Just what is the right balance between sharing and protecting what you have? What is the right balance between the Prince wanting to save his rose from the sheep’s teeth and the sheep wanting and needing to eat it? The story of Le Petit Prince is more important than ever because it is increasingly clear that if humans don’t start getting that balance right we’re going to lose both our roses and our sheep.

Twenty-six years ago, I worked on the Ethiopian Famine Relief project with David Macdonald. Canadians made a superlative effort donating more than 50 million dollars in food and medical relief. We sent so much wheat with Canada stamped on the bags that ‘Canada’ became the name for wheat in parts of Ethiopia. Twenty-six years ago the population of Ethiopia was about 45 million, it’s now over 90 million and there’s another famine underway in the same region. Is there not something out of balance here?

Canada started out as an agricultural country of small towns and small farms and we Canadians have always had a lively understanding of the importance of sharing, but we are no longer rural. We’re the most urbanized nation on the planet and I’m beginning to wonder if we’re also losing the sense of what that right balance between sharing and protecting wealth should be.

One percent of Americans now have more wealth than 90 per cent and we’re quickly following the American model, having accepted the thought that the rich deserve to be taxed less than the poor because they create jobs. The reality is a favoured tax position for the American rich hasn’t created more jobs, it’s just made the rich, richer, but that shouldn’t be the point. The point should be the same as the one the Little Prince was trying to find an answer for – ‘what is fair?’

It wasn’t an easy question for the Prince to answer and it isn’t for us today. As I write this, I’m staying in a little French village of about 3,000 people. It has a large community centre, a library, two schools where children start at three years old, (yes, that’s right, three), a seniors home, a market, stores, cafes, national medical and dental care, cheap buses to a nearby town and the beach – all that civilized life requires. It has these because France never abandoned its village and country life. A village with one classroom can receive a national teacher.

Canada has gone down a different route. We have closed down dozens of schools with hundreds of students just in my hometown because they are considered too small. Sixty per cent of Canadians live in just seven city metropolises. This is regarded as efficient and we’re growing those seven metropolises faster than any other part of the country. Our national medical system is under so much pressure, people wonder if it can survive. There’s zero talk of dental care or fast inter-city rail service. This is also regarded as unaffordable.

I’ve frequently heard British, American and Australian politicians make disparaging remarks about France’s economic policies. The complaint is the French spend too much money on public services. The unions are too strong etc. Better to invest your money in nations that put profits first and so on. But what is the point of these profits and efficiencies if your country is running out of pleasant places to live?

France is full of wealthy expatriate Brits, Americans and Canadians who don’t chose to live in their country of origin any longer. When I ask why they respond, ‘we like the life here’, as if ‘life here’ occurred by some magic mixture of wine and the village square. Life in France is better because the French haven’t forgotten the story of Le Petit Prince. They’re willing to share more and invest more in their community and national life. It’s a choice, not an accident.

Saint Quentin-La-Poterie, France

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3 Responses to Thoughts on The Little Prince and Sharing

  1. Micheline Boyle says:

    Message for Pat from the Abbotsford fitness gang:
    All the best on Saturday for the happiest of birthdays in la belle France!
    P.S.: We all miss you and look forward to your return in the fall. Till then, Joseph said that you should keep “squeezing your buttocks” :o)

    Micheline

  2. Will Samuel says:

    It wasn’t until the very end of your post that you hit that magic phrase that we have seen ripped out of the heart and soul of Canadian urban and rural spaces collectively; village square. If someone were to ask me where ours is in Ottawa, I would be remiss and couldn’t really say. Another person likely would point at the Rideau Centre, or the Market, or some other spot in the core of the city, but to me the village square drums up a very different image than a massive complex of buildings and cars. For me the village square is a mix between public space for leisure and enjoyment mixed with small shops to lure patronage and where cars are limited only to the periphery if at all. A space where we do indeed get together and share with one another and connect.

    In the 1960s Canada was shocked when George Grant published his essay Lament for a Nation where he stated Canada was being absorbed into the United States. In response to this Canada saw an increase in nationalism and from the grassroots through to national policies we Canadians wanted to be seen as unique. Yet, despite all of our polices and sabre rattling, we still built our cities and suburbs in the American model. Our factories were in urban spaces, our rural roots were being pulled up and brought into the metropolis. And then, almost by mistake and forgetfulness, we started building shopping malls.

    In 1971 Belleville Ontario finished the Quinte Mall… By the time I was in high school in the sleepy city in the early 1990s, the downtown core was a shell. The village square, right behind city hall, was mostly a parking lot and seldom used. Front Street was littered with little specialty shops still, but the writing was on the wall that they would soon be forced out too. We also, by the 1990s, stopped see “Made in Canada” stamped on the majority of our wares. We had forgotten the lessons of Grant and were complacently mirroring our southern neighbour. So much so that when Walmart was announced to come to Belleville it was celebrated. In 2005 I went back to visit the city and I went downtown with Sarah to find it had died. Everywhere was now focused around the mall and Walmart. Belleville was now mirroring the big city life where everyone wanted to be left alone, plugged into their headphones and unaffected by the world around them. Even 30 minutes south in my hometown of Wellington things had changed dramatically.

    To return to your point about how we used to once care and share in Canada, we are indeed mimicking the southern neighbour in this regard. Despite the work the American government tries to do in international aid (and I mean the serious efforts, not the ones at the end of rifles), the public at large is clueless to it. Sunday afternoons and late night television is bombarded by commercials of needing aid and support for causes outside of their borders, but they go largely ignored. The “not in my back yard” attitude of the American people can be rather depressing. But, can you blame them? Can we blame ourselves? We have very much come to believe that our model is the ideal, the best and we ought to take care of ourselves first. Ironic that the average Canadian cannot read beyond a grade 10 level or that we have 1 in 3 kids going to school hungry every day. So much for sharing with ourselves and being good to our neighbours.

    The French model is indeed better when it comes to fiscal responsibility, but their are several questions about their civic authority. In Canada we could adopt and modify our way of thinking to support the population to help support the system, but we would need to avoid the policies that would change our cultural mosaic.

    W.

  3. Karine Langley says:

    The French have never abandoned their rural roots and define themselves as such. We have adopted the North American model which was to ‘tame’ the wilderness, get out of it and settle into the city. Even our farms and countryside are being destroyed and taken over by mega industry.

    We are a nation without leaders, we have managers with no vision. They speak of jobs or fiscal matters but there is no vision for a Canada or its people. As such, we drift and copy failed models such as superprisons, large cities with no sustainable core, and that urban blight the mall…built to accommodate cars and not people.

    No doubt the Little Prince would ask ‘why’, and we would answer ‘we don’t know’. We have lost our way, and lost our heart, our roses and have no flock of birds to take us home.

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