Pollyanna, Sacred Stories & Riane Eisler's Partnership Studies
Even a cursory reading of the work of scholar and activist Riane Eisler’s reveals her assured belief that each individual, with each small action he or she takes, creates important change — that each individual choice matters;
I believe that all of us are born with an inner voice that tells us to be caring, not cruel; that it is the essence of what makes us human. Unfortunately this empathic voice is often stifled, even silenced, by the dominator elements in our culture (Eisler, 182);
We can each play a part in creating a world that supports the virtues of joy, pleasure, sacred communion, creativity, trust, and equality. A world in which such virtues are everyday, commonplace occurrences is within our grasp. (Eisler, 207)
As her book The Power of Partnership (2003) (from which these quotes are taken) asserts, Eisler believes that collectively those small changes can and will change the world. In other words, she knows, as we do here at strawandspindle, “That change begins with small acts and thoughts," that, therefore, "You can initiate changes both in your lives and the lives of others” (emphasis added) (206). Eisler also reminds her readers,
The message of partnership, Eisler argues, will spread if those who live a partnership way of life can continue to stay positive while focusing on small, mindful actions of partnership. In other words, the positive frame of mind goes hand in hand with the mindful action — for the positive frame of mind allows for patience as small actions make a multitude of infinitesimal changes — straws, if you will. These changes may take generations to accumulate enough to become visible to the naked eye.
The novel Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter (1994) was first published in 1913, many decades prior to the emergence of Eisler’s concepts about partnership. The Nazi Germany of World War II Europe, in many ways the catalyst for Eisler’s work, is still decades away from the pre-World War I America of Pollyanna’s Beldingsville, Vermont. Yet Porter’s protagonist, young Pollyanna Whittier, interacts with the world as if she were living by an Eisler-authored partnership instruction manual. In this way the novel Pollyanna makes clear how partnership modes of thinking have always existed, even though they may not have been labeled as such. The novel also illustrates how naturally, given the chance, the skills of partnership come to individuals.
Pollyanna’s partnership way of life evolved initially from her spirituality, which is a spirituality grounded in both positive thinking as well as in loving relationships with other people. The tale of how Pollyanna, grounded in her spirituality, spreads partnership throughout her new home town becomes, therefore, what might be called a ‘sacred story of partnership.’ One of the most important tools Pollyanna uses in her partnership life is her healthy strategy for dealing with adversity as well as the cynicism and depression Eisler warns of above (p. 205-206).
The little girl’s positive philosophy originates with a game invented by her now deceased father, who was a missionary preacher. As Pollyanna explains simply to her Aunt Polly’s housemaid Nancy, “. . .the game was just to find something about everything to be glad about — no matter what ’twas,’” (Porter, p. 37). Pollyanna’s introductory example of the game is to tell of how her father showed her there was something to be glad about at receiving a pair of crutches in their missionary (charity) barrel rather than the doll she had been hoping for. He told her to be glad that she didn’t need the crutches (p. 37). It is this story that Pollyanna begins sharing with the people of Beldingsville, and which starts the chain reaction of gladness that will spread throughout the entire town in the little girl’s wake.
Pollyanna’s father built his glad game out of his discovery of what he called the glad texts in the Bible. Being particularly down one day Pollyanna’s father decided to count the Bible’s glad texts and had found eight hundred of them; “‘. . .it’s all those that begin Be glad in the Lord, or Rejoice Greatly, or Shout for Joy, and all that, you know. . .[father] said if God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, He must want us to do it — some’” (pp. 192-193). In explaining the comfort of her father’s philosophy to Beldingsville’s Reverend, Mr. Ford, Pollyanna states, “they got to be such a comfort to him, you know, when things went wrong, when the Ladies’ Aiders got to fight — I mean, when they didn’t agree about something” (p. 193). Pollyanna is even careful to correct her language from the dominator term ‘fighting’ to a more diplomatic, partnership phrase ‘didn’t agree.’
Pollyanna honors her father’s memory by doing her best to be glad and rejoice in everything. It is not always an easy task. When she first arrived at her Aunt Polly’s the housemaid Nancy finds her crying over her loss. “‘But I’m bad and wicked, Nancy — awful wicked,’ she sobbed, ‘I just can’t make myself understand that god and the angels needed my father more than I did’” (p. 28). Nevertheless, Pollyanna refuses to give up. After letting the tears flow a little she is quick to turn her attention to any glad thing she can think of for she knows that “when you’re hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind” (p. 38). Her example touches not only those inside of the fictional world of Beldingsville, Vermont created by Porter, but also those in the real world of 1913 America for “Pollyanna, the sentimental story of a plucky and optimistic girl facing life's difficulties. . .became a popular phenomenon. . .One million copies were sold in 1913, the year it was first published” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/pollyanna/forever_porter.html). The desire amongst readers to connect with characters full of “plucky optimism” who face life’s difficulties with determination and joy is reflected in these sales numbers.
What those sales numbers also reflect are Eisler’s reassurances that feeling good is good for us; “Even now, people will tell you that feeling good has nothing to do with working. They believe that feeling good is an indulgence that gets in the way of doing the work that has to be done. . .as it turns out, [that] is not true” (p. 64). In Porter’s novel, young Pollyanna Whittier’s life philosophy of feeling good, of just being glad, acts as a catalyst for her partnership oriented interaction with the lives of the many members of her community whose “dysfunctional personal and social habits are products of a dominator/control way of life” (Eisler, 204). The young girl of Porter’s imagination instinctively knows that dominator “habits cause a great deal of damage in how we relate to ourselves, our loved ones, our co-workers, our local, national, or international communities, and our Mother Earth” (p. 204). Although Pollyanna could not have used Eisler’s scholarly vocabulary to describe the damaged individuals she helps to heal, two particular examples highlight the partnership changes for which she is a catalyst. These are John Pendleton, who Pollyanna first nicknames “The Man” (Porter, p. 63) and Pollyanna’s own aunt and guardian, Miss Polly Harrington, or Aunt Polly.
Pollyanna has no need for Eisler’s “Next Steps” action item reminder to “observe the natural high you get from exploring new possibilities, from creating, and from helping those in need” (emphasis added) (p. 28) to prompt her to reach out to those in need. One of Pollyanna’s distinctive qualities is how in touch she is with her emotions. On her first morning in Beldingsville she greets her Aunt Polly with an exuberant display of physical emotion and affection in the form of a hug. When the stiff Aunt Polly questions her, “Is this the usual way you say good mornings?” Pollyanna answers, “No, only when I love folks so I just can’t help it!” (Porter, p. 42). Pollyanna is ecstatic that she has her own “really true aunt” (p. 42) to love, and not a member of the Ladies’ Aid Society. Pollyanna has no trouble sharing her joy with those around her, and it is because of her willingness to feel and express her own emotions that she readily senses loneliness, sadness and discomfort in others. Pollyanna never fails to obey her intuition to reach out.
One of the first strangers Pollyanna reaches out to in Porter’s novel is an older gentleman she called “The Man,” and of whom the author states, “He walked erect, and rather rapidly, and he was always alone, which made Pollyanna vaguely sorry for him. Perhaps it was because of this that she one day spoke to him” (Porter, p. 63). Pollyanna knows even then, decades before Eisler publishes the words, that “feeling bad goes against human nature, which seeks pleasure rather than pain,” and that “when we chronically feel pain, we also learn to deaden our senses” (p. 7). Each time she crosses paths with The Man Pollyanna offers up cheerful greetings and commentary on the weather. The Man studiously ignores her until Pollyanna’s stubborn refusal to give up on him finally prompts a cross reaction. “‘See here, little girl, we might just as well settle this thing right now, once for all,’ he began testily, ‘I’ve got something besides the weather to think of. I don’t know whether the sun shines or not’” (p. 74). Pollyanna refuses to crumble under the weight of The Man’s admonishments that there are more important things to think of than the weather, however, and “beamed joyously.” She goes on to declare, “‘No, sir; I thought you didn’t. That’s why I told you. . .so you would notice it, you know — that the sun shines, and all that. I knew you’d be glad it did if you only stopped to think of it” (p. 75). It takes a little bit of time, but Pollyanna eventually erodes the crusty exterior of The Man and when, one day, he finally does begin to notice the sun shining she tells him “I knew you knew it just as soon as I saw you” (p. 76). Pollyanna does nothing more than redirect The Man’s attention to something worth being grateful for — something that is already in existence.
The Man is soon confirmed as the wealthy bachelor John Pendleton. And the more important things he has on his mind turn out to be the sadness and depression of a long broken heart. “It takes a woman’s hand and heart, or a child’s presence to make a home, Pollyanna, and I have not had either” (p. 167). Although the phrasing of John Pendleton’s sentiment is somewhat dated, by inserting Eisler’s ideas about the “stereotypically feminine” (p. 73) in place of a specific “woman’s heart,” John Pendleton’s cry for a wife and child becomes a cry for a life that cultivates a healthy relationship with the stereotypically feminine qualities of compassion, nurturing and emotional congruency.
Once John Pendleton, with the encouragement of Pollyanna, admits his true needs to himself it is not long before he adopts a young orphan boy, Jimmy Bean, and begins to build himself a true and loving family. When Aunt Polly hears of this transformation she is in disbelief. “John Pendleton adopt Jimmy Bean? John Pendleton, wealthy, independent, morose, reputed to be miserly and supremely selfish, to adopt a little boy?” (p. 234). Not long after this revelation, however, Aunt Polly’s own partnership transformation is completed.
At the outset of the novel, Porter’s Polly Harrington is a woman who structures her life around duty. A sense of duty, not familial love, places Pollyanna under her roof in the first place. On the third page of the novel she clearly announces her motivations for taking Pollyanna in;
[J]ust because I happened to have a sister who was silly enough to marry and bring unnecessary children into a world that was already quite full enough, I can’t see how I should particularly want to have the care of them myself. However, as I said before, I hope I know my duty. (p. 3)
Polly Harrington has lived alone throughout her adult life and, though barely middle-aged, is severely set in her ways. Porter tells her readers that Aunt Polly’s housemaid, Nancy, thinks of her “as a stern, severe-faced woman who frowned if a knife clattered to the floor, or if a door banged — but who never thought to smile even when knives and doors were still” (p. 2). On Pollyanna’s first morning with her Aunt the older woman lays out a schedule of sewing, cooking and studying to fill Pollyanna’s summer hours. Pollyanna’s reaction is a poignant cry for the opportunity to go out and get to know the new community she has be dropped into;
“‘Oh, but Aunt Polly, Aunt Polly, you haven’t left me any time at all just to — to live.’
‘To live, child! What do you mean? As if you weren’t living all the time!’
‘Oh, of course I’d be breathing all the time I was doing those things, Aunt Polly, but I wouldn’t be living. I mean living — doing the things you want to do: playing outdoors, reading (to myself, of course), climbing hills, talking to Mr Tom in the garden, and Nancy, and finding out all about the houses and the people and everything everywhere all through the perfectly lovely streets I came through yesterday. That’s what I call living, Aunt Polly. Just breathing isn’t living!’” (p. 51)
Pollyanna’s philosophy of living embodies Eisler’s assertion that as partnership ways of living become a person’s norm, he or she begins, “. . .to focus on relationships as key to. . .individual growth and to the kind of world” (p. 205) he or she inhabits. Pollyanna, having just arrived in a community that is to be her permanent home for the foreseeable future, is desperate to introduce herself. She has an immediate and insatiable longing to know the people around her and it is not long before the girl’s strict, duty-laden schedule has been modified. While it is true that “Pollyanna sewed, practiced, read aloud, and studied cooking in the kitchen. . .she did not give to any of these things quite so much time as had first been planned,”and “[a]lmost every afternoon found Pollyanna begging for ‘an errand to run,’ so that she might be off for a walk in one direction or another,” for, as she announces to Nancy, she is “happy just to walk around and see the streets and the houses and watch the people. I just love people” (p. 63). As it turns out, it is through creating friendships with the people of Beldingsville that Pollyanna eventually melts the emotionally stunted heart of her Aunt.
The greatest test of Pollyanna’s glad game and partnership coping skills comes when she herself is hit by a speeding automobile. This accident, and Pollyanna’s resulting spinal injury, are also what finally bind she and Aunt Polly together in true familial love. The housemaid Nancy is the first to notice the change in her mistress and, just after the accident, is found saying to Old Tom the gardener, “‘Ye didn’t need ter more’n look at her aunt’s face ter see that ‘twa’n’t no duty that was eatin’ her’” (p. 200) as she describes Aunt Polly’s reaction to Pollyanna’s accident. When it becomes clear that Pollyanna may never walk again the little girl is laid low with the fear that she will never be able to play her father’s glad game again, the entire town of Beldingsville joins forces to emotionally support her. It is the force of these outpourings of love that finally convince Aunt Polly to play the game and, in turn, give Pollyanna something to be glad about;
‘Why, Pollyanna, I think all the town is playing that game now with you. . .and the whole town is wonderfully happier — and all because of one little girl who taught the people a new game and how to play it;’
Pollyanna clapped her hands.
‘Oh, I’m so glad,’ she cried. Then, suddenly, a wonderful light illuminated her face. ‘Why, Aunt Polly, there is something I can be glad about, after all. I can be glad I’ve had my legs, anyway — else I couldn’t have done — that!’ (p. 252)
Pollyanna’s influence on her town is a catalyst for change. Once change is initiated it begins to perpetuate itself. “As your awareness deepens, you in turn make more changes in how you think, feel, and act,” states Eisler, “So the more you change, the more your awareness grows. And the more your awareness grows, the more you initiate change in your life and the lives of others, helping them express in their actions the truths they hold in their hearts” (p. 205). In speaking of Pollyanna’s visits to her home one poverty stricken woman, Mrs Payson, tells Aunt Polly, “She didn’t know, I suspect, that her kind of folks don’t generally call on my kind. Maybe if they did call more, Miss Harrington, there wouldn’t be so many — of my kind” (p. 244). Pollyanna’s glad game and willingness to reach out to those around her does not discriminate.
The changes Pollyanna initiates in each person’s life also have ripple effects that spread in ways Pollyanna could never have foreseen. Many of the adult problems she helps to ‘solve’ she never even fully comprehends at the adult level, but the depth of healing is revealed in Porter’s writing. In the case of Mrs Payson, for example, Pollyanna’s glad game helps the woman and her husband avoid divorce. When Aunt Polly relays this information, and how thankful the Paysons are for Pollyanna’s glad game, Pollyanna asks, “What is a divorce, Aunt Polly? I’m afraid it isn’t very nice, because she didn’t look happy when she talked about it” (Porter, p. 250). And this, too, is the message of Eisler’s work on partnership — that small actions, engaged in with love, are the catalyst for great change. It is something at the heart of strawandspindle's r'aison d'etre as well.
In addition, the lesson is that, like Pollyanna, individuals will never see their own actions from the outside, in the context of the great continuum of history. Although it is true that “Any trend can be stopped by a change of ideas, and all of us can spread new ideas” (Eisler, p. 159) it is also true that individuals should not be wrestling for control of outcomes. Like Pollyanna, make choices motivated by gratitude and by kind and loving desires while being present in the moment and letting go of control of the distant, big picture.
Eisler, R. (2003). The Power of Partnership. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Pollyanna forever, Masterpiece Theater. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/pollyanna/forever_porter.html.
Porter, E. (1994). Pollyanna. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, Inc.