The Swan and the Crane

There is an old fable involving a swan and a crane that reads like this:

A beautiful swan alighted by the banks of the water in which a crane was wading about seeking snails. For a few moments, the crane viewed the swan in stupid wonder and then inquired:

“Where do you come from?”

“I come from heaven!” replied the swan.

“And where is heaven?” asked the crane.

“Heaven!” said the swan, “Heaven! Have you never heard of heaven?” And the beautiful bird went on to describe the grandeur of her home. She told of streets of gold, and the gates and walls made of precious stones, and of rivers, pure as crystal. In eloquent terms the swan sought to describe the hosts who live in the other world, but without arousing the slightest interest on the part of the crane.

Finally the crane asked: “Are there any snails there?”

“Snails!” repeated the swan; “No! Of course there are not.”

“Then,” said the crane, as it continued its search along the slimy banks of the pool, “you can have your heaven. I want snails!”

Too often, we live our lives as the crane. We choose to focus our attention on the temporal enjoyment of things that are less important: money, big houses, nice cars, fancy clothes, cutting-edge technology…

And in exchange, we have lost sight of the beautiful things that truly matter.

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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Comments

  1. says

    I like this fable, but my interpretation of it is quite the opposite. To me, it sounds like the crane is the wiser in forsaking a life of decadence for one of simple pleasures.

    I guess that’s the nice thing about stories like this – you can choose your own interpretation.

    • Vince says

      I would have to agree with Erin, your list of temporal pleasures “money, big houses, nice cars, fancy clothes, cutting-edge technology…” seems to very much resemble the “heaven” described by swan.

      To me, the swan embodies all the extravagance and excess of “heaven” while the crane is the minimalist, enjoying the essential and simple pleasures in life without a care for anything the swan describes. After all, snails are providing him with food he needs to live, while streets of gold and rivers of crystal are just eye candy.

      I seriously thought “crane” was a typo for swan in the last paragraph at first.

  2. says

    I exactly agree with Erin…particularly since the swan is describing a place by its “temporal enjoyments…” precious jewels, a home of grandeur, etc. The crane just wants to eat…and if you can’t eat in a place, it’s not a good place for you to go.

  3. Jonathan says

    I agree with Erin and Heather. The message I took from the fable is that the swan was trying to sell the crane on the idea of the beauty of heaven. The crane, however, has no interest in such fancy, beautiful things. The crane knows what is important is his/her life, even though the swan can’t seem to understand why anyone would choose that over the beauty of heaven.

    This interpretation seems to me to parallel the experience than many of us have with minimalism. We, like the crane, see what is truly important in life, even though our friends and family (swans) can’t understand how we could possibly choose to “sacrifice” the big house, fancy cars, etc for such a meager existence.

    • says

      One more for this point of view. I really see the swan as the seller of the big, shiny, flashy but possibly empty life and the crane as the (wiser, minimalist) bird who understands what makes HIM happy. Indeed, the swan’s use of the word “heaven” makes her come across as a bit deceptive to me, as it’s a very loaded, positive word but she then goes on to describe things that don’t nourish the crane.

      I was going to explain this viewpoint in some detail and then apologize for being contrarian, but see that others have derived the same meaning from the parable, and so I can get away with a “me too”. :-)

  4. David Engel says

    I’ve always taken this fable, and those like it, to mean to be happy where you are, as the crane is happy looking for snails in the mud. The swan was probably happy in heaven, too (And I bet there actually were snails in those fantastic rivers the swan described; it just never bothered to look).

    Hopefully, it is clear, then that I think we should focus on real happiness, whether that is working with an old desktop running XP (okay, I struggle with being happy with this, but I know I should) and an old cellphone instead of the latest and greatest laptop and iPhone.

  5. says

    well, this is an interesting conversation that has caught me completely off guard.
    to be honest, my mind never went to the interpretation that erin and others have explained.

    while i can completely appreciate the line of thinking that leads to that alternative interpretation and understand the implications that follow…

    my hope was to motivate others to seek out the most important, valuable, and lasting things possible. (i think that it is why the author chose to use heaven as the alternative – a universal symbol of true beauty and lasting value). it wasn’t about choosing grandeur over simplicity. it was about choosing the beautiful, invisible things of life over the temporal, material possessions that so many seek to own and base their life upon. it was about not living our life for anything less than the most important.

    i have never sought out simplicity/minimalism as my ultimate destination. i have always seen it as a means to an end – as an opportunity to free up life to choose relationships and significance rather than “stuff.”

    simplicity for only simplicity sake would be selling it short of its true potential.

  6. says

    An interesting story and a valid lesson. I do note that it seems the swan was the one hung up on the materialistic world and the crane was the minimalist who was satisfied to be in a simple world that had snails.

  7. says

    Intriguing fable, and conversation!

    My first thought was that the “moral of the story” was that one person’s idea of heaven is different to someone else’s.

    Maybe for the crane, eating snails all day would be a beautiful life and it would have no interest in streets of gold and rivers clear as crystal. They seem more like the kind of “riches” we’re told by society are worth having – shiny new cars, expensive jewellery, fancy houses and so on.

    Caviar and champagne might be one person’s idea of the most glorious meal imaginable, for another it might be freshly baked cookies and a cup of warm milk.

    Find your own heaven, walk your own path, don’t follow what everyone else tells you it looks like, that’s what I took from the story.

    • says

      “Find your own heaven, walk your own path, don’t follow what everyone else tells you it looks like, that’s what I took from the story.”

      That’s how I saw this story, too. Digging for snails in the mud is a perfectly good version of heaven! Just because the crane didn’t know the name for it doesn’t make it any less so…and maybe even more so. The crane was immersed in the moment, keeping busy with his snail hunt…from my standpoint, heaven only exists in the present moment, anyway, so the crane is right on the mark. :)

      • says

        And surely we can only ever find happiness, or “heaven” in a single moment at a time? If we’re always looking forward to some distant ideal of heaven, we don’t appreciate what we have right here, right now.

  8. Deb J says

    Interesting reactions to the story. I guess it comes from whether you grew up on the descriptions of Heaven in the Bible. For me this is the story of looking for satisfaction in the now, in the worlds view, and looking to what’s eternal and will never go away. Give me Heaven any time. Thanks Joshua.

  9. says

    To me it means that what’s considered “valuable” varies greatly from one person to the next.

    Personally I value freedom of choice, flexibility, time but some others might equally value something like comfort or a form of security.

    I agree with that you said Joshua about using simplicity/minimalism as a roadmap as opposed to the destination. I think the destination for many is generally the same. The roadmap our culture provides is extreme wealth, extreme material possession. Simplicity/minimalism offers a different roadmap – and in my opinion, a more accurate one.

  10. prufock says

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who read this story with the alternate interpretation. Who needs streets of gold and walls made of precious stones? That’s vapidity, and seems counter to minimalism. I’d say too often we are like the swan.

  11. says

    What an engaging debate! I can see both sides of the coin, but I think I prefer to go with Joshua’s interpretation in the end. As a relatively new minimalist, I’ve noticed that many minimalists get tied up in the constant elimination of things from their lives. That’s great, but for me, once I have eliminated the unnecessary, I want to fill up that space in my life with things that are meaningful and even exciting. Life was meant to be lived, and I definitely do not want to end up like a crane, eating snails in the mud (or watching tv and eating Cheetos…). Great discussion though, I enjoyed reading all the different reactions to the fable.

  12. maryann says

    If the swan lived a “real” heaven, there would be an abundance of snails for the crane to enjoy… Def: An eternal state of communion with God; everlasting bliss.

  13. Christine says

    It’s funny, my interpretation was the same as Erin’s as well. To me, the crane just wanted the simplicities in life: food. The swan wanted the luxuries that the crane could clearly live without.

    After reading Josh’s explanation I was able to see how his interpretation makes sense as well. Sometimes people have tunnel vision and only see one thing, not the bigger picture.

  14. says

    My interpretation: evangelists are annoying, they think everyone should want what they want, and cannot see the value in another way of thinking and being!

  15. Kristi says

    It seems to me that the description of heaven is not what is important. I think one could insert their ideas of heaven into the paragraph with the precious stones and rivers. It seems implied that in a place so luxurious food would be provided for you, or at the very least would be made available to you. The crane is rather short sighted. I think the term “can’t see past the end of your nose” is applicable to the crane. He (she) is not willing to explore anything other than the banks of his little pond.

  16. says

    Well, I am delighted not to find myself the only one on the crane’s side! As someone who has no interest in gold or precious stones, but loves the river bank, I’d be with the crane. And as I value presence in my life, I prefer to put my energy into – and pay attention to – doing the next thing in front of me (however slimy the water!) rather than spend time in my head imagining some kind of future or other place which is, in someone else’s eyes, ‘better’. Obviously lots to take from this story, Joshua!

  17. says

    Thanks Joshua for your reminder of what is really important. When reading through the posts, I too, was surprised at how many other people viewed the crane/swan story different than intended. You said it best when you noted:
    “my hope was to motivate others to seek out the most important, valuable, and lasting things possible. (i think that it is why the author chose to use heaven as the alternative – a universal symbol of true beauty and lasting value). it wasn’t about choosing grandeur over simplicity. it was about choosing the beautiful, invisible things of life over the temporal, material possessions that so many seek to own and base their life upon. it was about not living our life for anything less than the most important.
    i have never sought out simplicity/minimalism as my ultimate destination. i have always seen it as a means to an end – as an opportunity to free up life to choose relationships and significance rather than “stuff.” ”

    Seeking out minimalism without a larger vision, turns minimalism into a “thing.” Something someone is proud of and holds over the heads of others to prove they have a better vision/”thing.” True simplicity and the type of minimalism you are promoting is far beyond simply being able to count your things on one hand. You are engaging the world in the act of finding meaning (whatever that is for the individual.) Thanks for being out here for us to continue to read and learn from!

  18. Ramanathan says

    Dear Joshua, Just now I have read the fable, which is very beautiful. This story reminds me of a Dohe (i.e. couplet) of Kabirdas, a famous philosopher cum saint of fourteenth century, which was roughly translated as below:
    “The crane and the swan appear alike,
    They feed from the same lake;
    Crane hankers after fish alone,
    Swan prefers gems to take.”
    Explanation:
    The swan and the crane appear alike while feeding in the same lake but while the crane looks for fish and dirt, the swan craves for gems on which she feeds. Appearances are no indication of one’s nature. Moreover, swan symbolises discrimination of right and wrong. Therefore, one should have his own discrimination. This is the implied meaning of the couplet.

  19. Todd says

    I don’t believe in God or the Devil. I don’t believe in heaven or hell. But I do believe in snails. They’re totally real.

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