Yesterday my husband and I were discussing theology, as we so often do, and he told me of a story written by Russian philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevsky called The Parable of the Onion. Hearing him tell this tale I was moved almost to tears and so I wanted to share it with all of you:
“Once upon a time there was an old woman who had died and found herself in Hell. She complained to Satan that her assignment to the netherworld was a mistake.
Satan told her, “You’ve been a greedy, selfish woman all your life. Surely, this is where you belong.”
The woman thought a long time, trying to recollect some shred of altruism in her life. After several minutes she exclaimed, “Aha! I did a good deed once! I gave an onion to a beggar.”
Satan replied, “Oh, yes. That is right. You pulled an onion out of the ground in your yard and handed it (bulb, stalk, and all) to a beggar at the fence.”
At that very moment, God’s hand descended into hell, holding the onion out for the woman to grasp. Holding onto the onion with both hands, the woman found herself miraculously being pulled up and out of Hell.
As she rose, to the woman’s horror, dozens of people began to grasp at her legs and ankles, and as they were pulled up along with her, yet more people grasped onto the lower-most people’s own legs and ankles, until it seemed that the bowels of hell clung like an endless chain from a single woman’s body and the onion to which she clung.
Though there was great weight tethered to the onion, the connection remained secure and God’s hand continued to lift everyone up out of Hell. Remarkably, the onion held; it did not fray.
More and more people who had previously been doomed for eternity found themselves slowly, miraculously, being raised from hell by way of the woman’s firm grasp on the onion. There were soon thousands, and after several minutes millions of people hanging from the onion.
Yet the onion held fast.
Halfway to heaven, which is a long distance up from Hell, the woman looked down at the vast human chain following her.
She was angry and resentful that these people — who may have done even less good in their lives than herself — should be so easily redeemed by virtue of simply clinging to her spindly old legs. She was also afraid, and so exclaimed in a great shout, “If all of you grab on to me like this, the onion will surely break and I will not get to heaven!”
So, resolving not to allow anyone to harm her chances for redemption, the woman began to kick and smash the people hanging from her legs and ankles and toes. One by one as she struck them they fell, with each loss of a handhold causing tens of thousands of people to plunge back into Hell.
But with each kick — though the physical load grew lighter — the onion began to fray. And as the onion frayed, the woman, in her anger and haste, began to kick more ferociously still, thinking that it was the weight of hell’s denizens — and not her anger and selfishness — that tore at the onion.
She kicked until but one person remained clinging to her left big toe, with yet another endless chain of people dangling from him. Millions of people hung from that precious, single toe. Still, the onion held though it was severely frayed. But the woman couldn’t bear the risk of losing her only chance to join God in heaven, so she kicked at the last remaining person; and as the person lost his grip, the onion snapped, and the selfish old woman — from a great height, having made it almost all the way to heaven — fell back into hell.” *
Beyond the obvious comparison of each of us helping to get as many people into Heaven as we can, this simple parable – an old woman clutching at an onion to try to pull herself from Hell and selfishly denying so many others the chance she felt that only she deserved – carried another, more poignant message for me. To me, this woman represents the selfishness of so many in today’s society, who see their fellow man in need and refuse to help them up. Those who see the poor and the sick, the needy and the homeless and the refugee and turn a blind eye, leaving those people to try to find a way to pull themselves out of their own personal Hell and into a Heaven that perhaps we already hold the key to, if only we’d be willing to give that person a helping hand.
We will not find the key to our own salvation by kicking others while they are down and ignoring their cries for help while we desperately try to get ahead. Only by helping our fellow man will we all be able to be pulled into the light that we all so desperately seek.
So next time you see someone standing on the street corner holding a sign or a friend posts a gofundme link for someone in need of help or you see a news story about displaced refugees, instead of turning away think about what you could do to help. It doesn’t have to be much. It doesn’t have to be money. Perhaps the man standing there on the street corner with his sign would like a drink of cold water after standing in the hot sun all day or you know of a group in which to share that gofundme link where the person could get more donations. Every little bit truly does help and every hand you raise to help someone in need reaches down to someone else.
Together we can build a chain of helping hands that spreads across the globe. Together we can make a difference. All it takes is one person to start the chain so don’t wait for that person to come along. Be that person. Start that chain. And let’s see how far we can go.