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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in The Times of Trenton 12/21/2006

The Common Good: What We Can Learn from "Stone Soup"

by Ingrid Reed

Tis the season to tell stories. The traditional holidays we are elebrating this time of year all depend on shared tales of what happens to people who search for the good and aspire to higher ideals - shared thankfulness, giving that is selfless but makes the giver a better person, even a noble person.

Would Thanksgiving be celebrated without the legend of the Pilgrims who expressed their gratitude for the harvest with the Indians who helped them through the first year in their new world? Santa Claus lives around the world as a symbol of generosity to all good children. Even the armual enactment of Washington crossing the Delaware in our state capital tells the story of courageous dedication to the higher ideal of a free people, not the feat of successfully steering through treacherous waters.

Is it possible that these universal themes might be woven into a story to inspire cynical New Jerseyans to aspire to the common good, to live within our collective means and create a fairer tax system for all? Don't we need a shared vision of what we can achieve if we actually worked together?

I recently heard a version of the story "Stone Soup," a book by Marcia Brown that kids loved and many parents can still recite by heart. I think it has real possibilities for being adapted to an uplifting tale that our state could heed in the new year.

Here is what happens in "Stone Soup": Three weary travelers who had been on a long journey are hungry and tired as they approach a town. They stop at a door to ask for some food and are told to go away. They stop at another door to explain their plight. The door slams. They try one more time. Again they are rebuffed.

Reconsidering their strategy, they decide to ask the villagers to help make some soup - stone soup - something to which everyone could contribute. They retrace their steps and at each door ask for volunteers. The inhabitants are intrigued with the possibilities and bring a pot of water, wood for a fire and, of course, some stones.

Then the travelers muse about what else might make the soup even better for everyone. Suggestions abound and the villagers throw in their ideas: potatoes, carrots, turnips and a bit of bacon. With some stirring and tasting, they soon marvel at what they produced when they all shared the job. The story ends with the well-fed travelers leaving a village filled with people who are very happy with what they created when they did not think only of themselves.

Could there be a version of this story for New Jersey? Try this: Three leaders - a governor and the two heads of the people's representatives - are weary from laboring for many months to flnd a way to create a better, fairer state for their people. Like the travelers, they have agreed to go in a common direction together, but they know they can't get where they want to go without help. They decide to go out in the streets of the capital city and knock on the doors of important people to ask them to give something to the cause. They try the town leaders, but are told "No." They knock on the doors of the educators, and they are refused. They venture further to the businesses and the employees. No luck. Finally, they go to the last building, hoping that the taxpayers will contribute, but that door is slammed shut, too.

They sit on the curb to think. Maybe if they do not ask for something but give each of the influential people a chance to offer something toward the creation of a new policy that belongs to all of them, there could be happiness in the Legislature and the land.

So the three leaders circle back and start knocking on doors again. This time, they invite each group to come to the round table with the best idea they are willingto contribute if everyone else agrees to accept it. Doors remain open for a moment while the important groups listen and think about what they could give up. Slowly, they come out in the street, making their way to the people's golden-roofed house. Precious ideas are put on the table. They all work at putting the pieces together, carefully fitting them into a new and interesting reform to create a big, innovative and sensible policy for a better future. Everyone smiles. The three leaders tell the people what has been achieved by generous and wise collaborators. And there is rejoicing in all 21 parts of the state.

Remember, this is the season to believe and be inspired by what appear to be miracles. Maybe it could happen here.