Updated: Oct 19, 2021
In 1762, on a trip to the German town of Hamburg, a young man met a girl and fell in love with her. It wouldn’t have been a particularly unusual event had it not been for the fact that the young suitor was about to become one of the greats in the history of philosophy: Moses Mendelsohn, later called the ‘Socrates of Berlin.’ But it wasn’t the famous name alone that saved this bit of trivia from historical oblivion. Rather, it was a little story.
The girl, Fromet Gugenheim, was about ten years Mendelsohn’s junior, of good upbringing and reputedly rather beautiful. Moses had already built quite a reputation for himself, and so Fromet’s father readily agreed to a match. However, when Fromet learned of the proposal, she broke down; whatever this man’s virtues, he was far from an ideal mate. Mendelson was short, misshapen, and ugly. But she agreed to meet with him just the same. “Is it my hump?” he asked her softly. She nodded. Moses quietly reflected for a moment, then looked at her. “Let me tell you a story,” he began, “According to Jewish belief, when a child is born, a proclamation is made in heaven of the name of the person that he or she is to marry; when I was born, it was your name that was announced. But imagine my distress when it was also said that my future wife would be a hunchback! I couldn’t bear the thought of such beauty being disfigured, of her having to suffer such misfortune. And so I pleaded ‘Dear Lord, please spare her and let me have the hump instead. – This is how I got my hunchback.”
The little story opened Fromet’s heart, and the two married the following June. They went on to have six children—founding a dynasty that historians later called “the Rothchilds of culture.”
Now, we all know the power of a good story. After all, stories have been told for as long as humans have existed. From the vibrantly colored hunting scenes of pre-historic caves to the latest Hollywood flick, there was never a time—nor a culture—that didn’t engage in storytelling of some fashion. And from all we know, it seems that we humans are the only ones telling stories. It’s easy to see why anthropologists have begun defining us as storytelling animals. Whatever the evolutionary advantages, one thing is clear: storytelling is an essential part of what makes us human.
The little story of how young Moses won over his future wife is a particularly charming one—and revealing. It demonstrates more than a story’s power to touch, to open hearts, and to change minds. It also shows how even challenging situations can be approached with kindness and grace. At no point did Moses fault the girl for her distress, nor did he try to sugarcoat the truth about its cause. Rather, his tale acknowledged the issue, validated her feelings, and then went on to provide a new framework for them, one that allowed her to see the very same facts in a very different light. What an elegant solution! Just imagine how different our daily challenges would look if we were able to approach them with similar imagination and skill.
Change is possible, yet often it’s not brought about as one might expect, through trying to alter or argue the facts, but instead it comes through building a new context around facts, by framing them differently. Whether we like it or not, our reality is defined by our stories, the stories that shape us and the stories we shape. Rather than following conventional storylines and scripts, it is up to us to claim authorship and shape our own narrative with purpose, understanding, and finesse.
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