Henry’s Awful Mistake

Did fixing a problem make it worse? Don’t give up!

In one of our children’s favorite picture books, Henry’s Awful Mistake, Henry the duck decides to get rid of an ant in his kitchen. Before long, his overly vigorous efforts lead to a burst water pipe, a flooded house and evacuation. You get the idea, right? When attempting to fix a problem, one often finds that it has escalated into something much more. You might wish you had left well enough alone.

Isn’t that true in real life as well? You visit your dentist for a minor toothache. He tells you that you need a root canal. Soon you feel real pain. You wish you had just continued living with the trivial tooth ache. But the mature part of you knows that ignoring the problem wasn’t a solution. The temporary discomfort will lead to long term benefit.

Brad heard my lecture on how husbands and wives must build one another up in front of their children. I urged spouses to ensure that their children stopped whatever they were doing and went to the door to greet their parents when mom or dad came home.

Brad told me that his children were always watching television when he walked through the door. He determined to bring about major changes in his family.

“Brad,” I said to him, “If you try to fix this problem, be sure that you can withstand the firestorm that your efforts will precipitate. The initial impact of most repair attempts is to make things much worse. One has to weather the storm and gently but firmly press for change. If, in the face of resistance one retreats, the situation becomes far worse than it was to begin with.”

Brad assured me that he wouldn’t give up. I wish I could report to you that Brad succeeded. Sadly, he did not. Perhaps over the years Brad had lost the ability to father with forceful conviction. Perhaps he and his wife weren’t on the same page. But he now had a bigger problem than children who were indifferent to their father. He now had sullen children who resented him, and Brad blinked.

The angry reaction of his children knocked all the fight out of him. “I know that by starting this and giving up I have made things much worse,” said Brad.

This principle of ancient Jewish wisdom is taught in the fifth chapter of Exodus. Remember that no part of Scripture I merely transmits narrative. Every verse is part of a message to mankind. Every word is part of the guide to how the world really works.

After hundreds of years in slavery, the Israelites are accustomed to slavery as their normal condition. Now, God sends Moses to tell Pharaoh:

The Lord God of Israel said,
‘Send out my people so they can celebrate for me in the desert.
(Exodus 5:1)

Pharaoh reacts with fury. “Who is this God that I should listen to his voice?” He immediately worsens the lives of the Israelites with a frightful decree. They will no longer be supplied with the raw materials of production, yet their output must increase.

And now, get to work. You will not be given straw
but you will deliver your quota of bricks.
(Exodus 5:18)

Not surprisingly, the Israelites hurl abuse at Moses. They are angry that he started up with Pharaoh causing this terrible worsening of their lives. Moses plaintively prays to God, “Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done worse to this people.”

Here we learn that timeless truth. When you tamper with a status quo, no matter how bad it is, the odds are you are going to make it worse. However, if you stick with it, redemption will follow in the end, just as it eventually did for the Israelites.

Whether you are grappling with an unsatisfactory family situation, a work-related dilemma, or perhaps a health matter, ancient Jewish wisdom offers three steps. These are true, as well, for citizens appalled at the direction their countries are taking. One, make sure your goal is worthwhile enough to justify the fight. Two, set a plan for achieving the goal. Three, don’t give up just because things seem to be getting worse. After all, you don’t want to end up like Henry the duck who, after countless troubles, moved into a new house still accompanied by the original pesky ant.

This Thought Tool can be found in Thought Tools Volume 2

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