Ferdinand’s Refusal

A sermon by Robin Livingston

For some of us, hearing the Story of Ferdinand this morning was the first time we heard it, but many of us have grown up with Ferdinand. A lot of us have a nostalgic sort of fondness for this bull. I think a lot of readers see themselves in Ferdinand, or aspire to be like him – someone who stays true to themself despite pressure from the outside world.

Ferdinand has been a mainstay of children’s literature for almost 90 years. The book was published in 1936 in the US, and had incredibly varied reception around the world. Despite the publisher’s predictions, it was a massive success in the United States. Munro Leaf, the author, says about Ferdinand that his intention was only to write a story that would encourage Lawson, the illustrator, to draw pictures that would make us laugh. Readers have interpreted Ferdinand as everything from a pacifist to a rugged individualist. It was burned in Nazi Germany and banned in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, but by 1938 it was so popular in the United States that Ferdinand was a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Disney had made it into a short film.

Ferdinand is faced with a bullfight that he didn’t choose. The banderilleros and picadores try to rile him up and get him angry so that he will fight bravely against the matador. But instead, Ferdinand does what he always does, which is sit quietly and enjoy the smell of the flowers.

I think maybe the reason this story resonates with so many of us is because we also find ourselves stuck in places, systems, patterns, that we don’t want to be in. We didn’t choose to be in whatever our own bullring is, and yet we feel we have no other choice. Ferdinand gives us a possibility model. He shows us that even when we feel stuck, we have the option to refuse. Not only do we have the option to refuse the bullring we’re in, but we can find joy and calm among that bullring. It might also save us.

Reading The Story of Ferdinand reminded me of a story that Jenny Odell tells in her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. She tells the story of a tree called Old Survivor in the Oakland Hills. During and after the Gold Rush, as settler communities were rapidly growing and expanding, the old-growth redwood forest in the Oakland Hills was logged for timber. The entire old-growth forest, gone. Except, Old Survivor. Old Survivor was short compared to its neighbors, and kind of a funky shape.

It’s scraggly looking, and on a steep and rocky slope. Old Survivor didn’t live up to the standards for what it meant to be a “good tree”, for the purposes of timber, and so was left alone by the loggers. Not being a “good tree” was exactly what Old Survivor needed to be able to survive.

Ferdinand and Old Survivor both resist the systems happening around them, they are inconvenient. But both the bullfight and the logging would have been the end for Ferdinand and Old Survivor – the reason they are able to survive is because of what Jenny Odell calls their “resistance-in-place”. By resisting the systems that mean to destroy them, they are able to survive.

Our capitalist culture that requires more and more work for less and less pay is not designed for our survival – these systems are designed to maintain power in the hands of the few at the cost of the well-being of the many. But we also don’t have a way to completely disengage. Throughout history many groups and people have tried seceding from the confines of everyday life only to find that on a really basic level as humans we need each other.

So how do we, as Ferdinand and Old Survivor do, resist the system we exist in? Odell gives us some possibilities. One is to move away from a mindset of productivity and towards a philosophy of maintenance and ongoing care. To shift our ideas of success towards that which grounds us in survival and life and nurturing our basic needs. Odell’s book is called “how to do nothing”, but she suggests that we can’t simply “do nothing” – we have to replace it with “something”. We have to do “something” else.

She offers an option of finding ourselves grounded in place. To get to know the local natural world that we are a part of, and become connected to the natural world by knowing and experiencing it. She writes about her experience of birding. As she became familiar with more and more birds, her experience of time changed. She had a more intimate connection to the world around her, and the birds took on new meaning.

Ferdinand offers a similar answer – to simply stop and smell the flowers. There is not glory for Ferdinand in the flowers, no prize. But he gets to go back to his farm and his cork tree and keep on smelling the flowers. He gets to live.

I bet there are already ways you’re practicing your own refusal of whatever bullring you find yourself in, and finding others in that refusal. Maybe your refusal looks like growing your own food in your garden. Cooking for the Wednesday community breakfast. Buying second hand clothes. Starting a meal chain for someone having surgery. Setting strong boundaries between our “Eight hours for work” and “eight hours for what you will”. Cultivating relationships that don’t fit into typical boxes. Teaching your kids about the inherent worth and dignity of all beings including themselves.

Tricia Hersey, author of Rest is Resistance and founder of the Nap Ministry, might call Ferdinand’s refusal rest. Our grind culture that is always asking more of us, always holding the promise of “enough” and “rest” just out of reach beyond the next item on the to-do list, the next job, the next step.

The combination of grind culture and white supremacy have generated a world in which rest is not prioritized. Sleep, seemingly, is one of the few activities these days that cannot be monetized. Hersey’s refusal takes the shape of Communal Nap Experiences in which she sets up pillows and blankets and calming music to allow folks a space to rest.

Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski write in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle about how much rest we need. [quote]

So how much rest is “adequate”? Science says: 42 percent.

That’s the percentage of time your body and brain need you to spend resting. It’s about ten hours out of every twenty-four. It doesn’t have to be every day; it can average out over a week or a month or more. But yeah. That much.

“That’s ridiculous! I don’t have that kind of time!” you might protest….

We’re not saying you should take 42 percent of your time to rest; we’re saying if you don’t take the 42 percent, the 42 percent will take you. It will grab you by the face, shove you to the ground, put its foot on your chest, and declare itself the victor”. [end quote]

We cannot simply continue to run on the hamster wheel, chasing a carrot (or running from a stick), and saying that we will rest when we get there.

We have to rest. Not just in sleep (although sleep is important too), but in giving our brains a break and allowing ourselves to shift gears. So rest might look like sleep, exercise, connecting with friends or loved ones, or activities that let your mind wander. Hersey says “rest is anything that connects your mind and body.”

If we live our lives like we live each day, who is it that you’re answering to? What would it be like to resist, to refuse, to rest? To be a little bit more true to yourself? What would it be like to let yourself be a little bit more free?

To see a recording of the sermon, click below.

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