Mary Kenny: A cheesy tale
A childish fable about the impact of change opened my eyes
I'm delighted - and honoured - to be co-hosting an event at Listowel Writers' Week later tonight, when people will speak about 'The Book That Changed Me'. But it's embarrassing to have to disclose one of the books that changed me because it is so unliterary, so corny and, frankly, so low-brow that commentators have said a child of six could have written it. But there you are: enlightenment comes in the most unexpected guises.
This was the early 2000s and I was in New York with my sister. It was a complicated period in my life, personally and professionally, and I was worried about money, as my income had suddenly dropped dramatically. Browsing in Barnes & Noble, I took up a little volume which at first I took to be a comic book, with funny drawings. It seemed to be about mice and little men, and it was called Who Moved My Cheese?. On a whim, I bought it.
It's a fable of such simplicity that, indeed, even a young child could understand it, and the story goes thus: once upon a time, in a land far away, there were four little characters who dwelt in a giant Maze. These were two mice named Sniff and Scurry and two miniature human beings, "Littlepeople", called Hem and Haw.
These implausible characters survived on copious amounts of cheese, mysteriously available in the said Maze. The mice scurried and sniffed out the cheese, but Hem and Haw knew exactly where the cheese was positioned - at Cheese Station C - and were quite happy to take provisions for granted.
All seemed well in their daily lives, although the mice, who relied on instinct and didn't "overanalyse", were shrewder in their pursuit of cheese, while the Littlepeople drifted into complacency and even a sense of entitlement.
And then, one day the Littlepeople awoke to find - no cheese! "What! No Cheese!" hollered Hem (the more conservative of the two). "Who moved my Cheese?" He was outraged and began lamenting, "It's not fair!"
The mice disappeared off hunting other sources of cheese, but Haw and Hem were stunned into disbelief. They couldn't accept that their source of livelihood had disappeared. Eventually, growing hungry and weak, Haw (the more innovative of the two) begins to venture further into the Maze in search of a solution. And so he embarks on a bewildering journey to discover an immutable fact of life: change happens. You have to adapt to it and move in new directions. It's frightening, but fear can be good - it can motivate you to be proactive.
So Haw travels through the Maze, finding life lessons beamed up on the walls, such as "If You Do Not Change, You Can Become Extinct"; "What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?" and "Movement In A New Direction Helps You Find New Cheese". He also begins to realise that before his cheese disappeared, small changes had been happening which he and Hem had ignored. You need to be alert to these signs and observe small shifts early on, before big changes occur.
Yes, predictably enough, through learning to be open to new circumstances, Haw finds new sources of cheese, and cries "Hooray for change!" while Hem pines away complaining that things aren't the way they were.
This little fable, written by Spencer Johnson - who died last year - has become a multi-million bestseller since its first edition in 1998. Nobody would call it literature, but it did have an impact on me. It made me more conscious that life, and especially conditions of work and communication, were changing fast and nobody can afford to be complacent. It also cheered me up and emboldened me to feel that we can face change and adapt to it.
"Read this - it's brilliant!" I told my sister. "Anyone who can persuade readers to part with $20 for a slim fable certainly is brilliant - as a salesman!" she replied tartly. (That was the hardback: it's now less than a tenner in euros.)
Yet this modest book earns its status as being a messenger for change: and that the primary transformation always has to occur within yourself.
Re-reading it now, I have a somewhat more measured view of what it is saying. Change certainly is happening all the time, and even some of the examples that Spencer Johnson cites in a postscript are now outdated - small businesses ceding to superstores on the high street: 20 years on, these superstores are now threatened by online retail.
But while change is inevitable, and we have to adapt to it, continuity matters as well. An interesting illustration of this was the Maytime royal wedding of Harry and Meghan: it had innovations and adaptations, and yet it drew deeply on the deposit of tradition too. There was change and continuity.
Also, some changes can mean reverting to something previously abolished: trams were declared obsolete in 1949. Now they're reinvented as a modern and efficient mode of public transport.
Thankfully, perhaps, there are more distinguished readers than I at Listowel's 'The Book That Changed Me' - Fergal Keane, Michael Harding, Anne O'Neill and Adrian Dunbar among others - who will raise the tone from my cheesy tale. @MaryKenny4
Mary will also give a stand-up comedy version of her book 'Am I a Feminist? Are You?' tomorrow, Sunday June 3, at Listowel Writers' Week; writersweek.ie