I purchased this book when I saw it used after it had been recommended to me by multiple people due to my then-fondness for all things Winnie the Pooh — a fact which should date how long I’ve been meaning to read it. And the multiple recommendations and the time it’s been with me and the energy of moving it from one place to another has all contributed to a bit of a sense of overhype.
I had wanted Hoff to draw parallels in the particular, to articulate specific intersections between taoism and these stories from the Hundred Acre Wood. Instead, he explains a taoist principle and then provides a quote or story from A. A. Milne’s work. And that’s it. He provides these sweeping stories and leaves the readers to draw their own connections. At times, I appreciated the freedom; more often, I felt abandoned — like he had an interesting thesis and got lazy in actually proving it, so instead he just laid out the evidence and said, “Here! See?”
Though he fails to thoughtfully execute the idea, his intuition is good. In the foreword, Hoff writes that he was in a conversation about the historical masters of wisdom when someone argued that they all come from the East; Hoff differed. He went to Milne’s work as an example of a wise Western Taoist.
That his example of Western wisdom is found in children’s stories is significant, and unusual for Western thinkers. I imagine that for many readers, The Tao of Pooh is the first work that took seriously a beloved children’s figure and helped explain why that figure was so important in their lives.
Perhaps this is the greatest gift that Hoff gives his readers: a certainty that wisdom exists not only in the West, but in children’s stories, in fantastical tales, and made-up realms.
Indeed, we humans are always “doing” theology. We can’t help but convey our understanding of the world in every act, with every word, and within every story. Of course we tell our theology to our children in the stories we share with them; indeed, this may be some of the most dense and raw theology. The created worlds in children’s stories often contain aspects of magic or make-believe, which is a condensed way to talk about realities. For one relevant example,”heffalumps and woozles” is a condensed way to talk about all the things in the world that make us feel uncertain about our security, anything from robbers to natural disasters. It’s a silly-while-serious way to introduce children to a difficult concept: there exists in the world something that is not for your best interests. In adult theology, we have another condensed way to talk about this concept: evil.
Storytellers want children to understand the world the same way we do and help them find their place in it. This is why so many new parents are excited to build their child’s bookshelf; they know they’re stocking their child’s imagination with lessons and beliefs about the way the world works.
Perhaps we’d do better to examine children’s stories more carefully and to choose which beliefs of the world we hand on to the next generations. Do you want your children (nieces, nephews, neighbor’s kids) to believe the world is fundamentally safe or unsafe? for them or against them? easy or challenging? What stories do you know of that convey these understandings of the world?