The story about the Little Match Girl is a familiar one. The story, at its core, describes what lack of nurture and lack of focus look like and what they lead to. The story is told in different forms too, sometimes with a man in the lead role such as the charcoal burner who uses his last coals while he dreams of times past, or the flower seller, a broken-hearted man who gazes wistfully into the centres of his last flowers and is spirited away from this life.
Some people might say these stories are superficial and overly emotional but it would be a mistake to dismiss them lightly. Stories like this are, at their base, profound expressions of the human soul being negatively mesmerised to the point that real life begins to die in spirit.
The version I am most familiar with is adapted from the story by Hans Christian Anderson. The message behind the story is that soft dreams under hard conditions are no good, in tough times we must have tough dreams, real dreams, dreams that if we work hard enough and believe in enough will come true.
THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL
It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Evening came on, the last evening of the year. In the cold and gloom a poor little girl, bareheaded and barefoot, was walking through the streets. Of course, when she had left her house in the woods she'd had slippers on, but what good had they been? They were very big slippers, way too big for her, for they belonged to her mother. The little girl had lost them running across the road, where two carriages had rattled by terribly fast. One slipper she'd not been able to find again, and a boy had run off with the other, saying he could use it very well as a cradle some day when he had children of his own. And so the little girl walked on her naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold. In an old apron, she carried several packages of matches, and she held a box of them in her hand. She wandered the streets and begged strangers, would they please buy matches from her? But no one stopped and no one paid her any attention.
Shivering with cold and hunger, she crept along, a picture of misery, the poor little girl. The snowflakes fell on her long fair hair, which hung in pretty curls over her neck. In all the windows lights were shining, and there was a wonderful smell of roast goose, for it was New Year's Eve. Yes, she thought of that!
In a corner formed by two houses, one of which projected farther out into the street than the other, she sat down and drew up her little feet under her. She was getting colder and colder, but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her. Besides, it was cold at home, the house in the woods on the edge of the town had been built out of clay and branches the wind whistled even though the biggest gaps had been stuffed with straw and rags.
Her hands were almost dead with cold. Oh, how much one little match might warm her! If she could only take one from the box and rub it against the wall and warm her hands, she thought. She drew one out. R-r-ratch! How it sputtered and burned! It made a warm, bright flame, like a little candle, as she held her hands over it; but it gave a strange light! It really seemed to the little girl as if she were sitting before a great iron stove with shining brass knobs and a brass cover. How wonderfully the fire burned! How comfortable it was! The youngster stretched out her feet to warm them too; then the little flame went out, the stove vanished, and she had only the remains of the burnt match in her hand.
She struck another match against the wall. It burned brightly, and when the light fell upon the wall it became transparent like a thin veil, and she could see through it into a room. On the table a snow-white cloth was spread, and on it stood a shining dinner service. The roast dinner steamed gloriously, spreading the wonderful aroma of the delicious food. Then the match went out, and she could see only the thick, cold wall. She lighted another match. Then she was sitting under the most beautiful Christmas tree. It was much larger and much more beautiful than the one she had seen last Christmas through the glass door at the rich merchant's home. Thousands of candles burned on the green branches, and coloured pictures like those in the printshops looked down at her. The little girl reached both her hands toward them. Then the match went out. But the Christmas lights mounted higher. She saw them now as bright stars in the sky. One of them fell down, forming a long line of fire.
"Now someone is dying," thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now dead, had told her that when a star fell down a soul went up to God.
She rubbed another match against the wall. It became bright again, and in the glow, the old grandmother stood clear and shining, kind and lovely.
"Grandmother!" cried the child. "Oh, take me with you! I know you will disappear when the match is burned out. You will vanish like the warm stove, the wonderful roast dinner, and the beautiful big Christmas tree!"
And she quickly struck the whole bundle of matches, for she wished to keep her grandmother with her. And the matches burned with such a glow that it became brighter than daylight. Grandmother had never been so grand and beautiful. She took the little girl in her arms, and both of them flew in brightness and joy above the earth, very, very high, and up there was neither cold, nor hunger, nor fear, nor pain.
And in the morning, between the houses, the child was found still and gone.
"She wanted to warm herself," the people said. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her old grandmother into the bright New Year.
The Little Match Girl lived in an environment where people did not care for her. If you live in an environment like this, get out. I found myself in this predicament and I walked away. You should too.
The child has matches, little fires on sticks, the beginnings of all sorts of creative possibilities, but what she has to offer is not valued. She is in a situation where she has few options. She has resigned herself to ‘her place’ in life. If this has happened to you, as it did to me, be strong, unresign yourself and walk away.
So what should the Little Match Girl have done? If her instincts had been intact she would have had many choices. She could have walked to another town, hidden in an outhouse, or offered to do some work in exchange for warmth and food. But the Little Match Girl had lost touch with her inner wild spirit. She was freezing and hungry and all that was left was a person wandering around in a trance.
Being with real people who value us, who warm us, and encourage our creativity is essential for a fulfilled and happy life. Otherwise we freeze to death in the coldness of empty relationships and lives. Nurture comes from within and without. You need to believe in yourself and also to be with people who notice the state of your inner being, encourage it, and, if necessary, comfort it. Friends are important - we all need at least one or two who can see our value.
When we are left out in the cold, we tend to live on fantasies instead of action. This sort of fantasy is like anaesthetic. People like this – men and women - have great talent as artists, storytellers, or in some special craft, but they are isolated or feel disenfranchised in some way. They are shy, which is often a sign that they lack motivation because their inner being is being starved. They have difficulty gaining a sense that they are being supported from within, or by friends, family, community.
To avoid being the Little Match Girl (or Boy) there is one major action that you must take. You must recognise that anyone who does not support your art, your life, your beliefs, is not worth your time. Walk away. It sounds harsh but it is true. If you don’t you will be dressed in the rags of the Little Match Girl (as I was for many years) and you will be compelled to live a quarter-life that freezes all thought, hope, gifts, art, creativity, music, and dancing.
Warmth should have been the major pursuit of the Little Match Girl. But in the story, it is not. Instead, she tries to sell the matches, her source of warmth. She is selling her soul. Doing so leaves her no warmer, no wiser, and no further forward in life.
The Match Girl is not in an environment where she can thrive. There is no warmth, no kindling, no firewood. If we were in her position what should we do? Firstly we should ignore the fantasy of finding warmth by lighting the matches. There are three kinds of fantasies: Firstly there is the pleasure fantasy such as daydreams; secondly intentional imaging. This kind of fantasy is like a planning session. It is like a vehicle that will take us forward into action. All successes, whether spiritual, financial, psychological, or creative, begin with fantasies of this nature. The third kind of fantasy is the type that hinders and brings everything to a halt. It is the kind of fantasy that stops us from taking the right action at critical times. Unfortunately, this is the fantasy that kept the Little Match Girl trapped. It is a fantasy that has nothing to do with reality. It has to do with the feeling that nothing can be done, or that something is too hard to do, so one might as well just drift into idle fantasy. Sometimes it is just in the mind or it might come in the form of a bottle of wine every evening, or a needle – or lack of one. Or it may take the form of regrettable secret relationships with someone they think will ‘save’ them. Women – and men – in these situations play out the Little Match Girl scenario every day and every night, waking up dead and frozen every daybreak. There are many ways that we can lose our intent, lose our focus.
So what will reverse this pattern and restore our self-esteem? We have to find something that is very different to what the Little Match Girl had. We have to take our ideas to a place where we will find support for them. This can involve an enormous step such as walking away and seeking a new life. Our focus should be on finding nurture. Very few of us can create solely under our own steam. We need all the help we can get.
Most of the time creative people have wonderful ideas: I’m going to get a picture of the sunrise from the top of Mount Snowdon; I’m going to paint a picture and sell it; I’m going to design a garden and win the best Show Case Garden award at the Chelsea Flower Show. I’m going to start this, do that, travel, clean up my act, be a community stalwart. This used to be me. Is it you?
The thing is that those kinds of projects need nurture, vital support, from warm people. Are you tattered like the Little Match Girl? Are you, like in the old song, “she’s been down so long it looks like up to her.” No one can thrive at that level. We need to get ourselves into a position, like the seedling in the woods that finds a gap in the canopy and grows towards the sun. But there has to be a sun. To get ourselves into the right position we have to move, not just sit there. We have to do something that makes our situation different. If we don’t we are just back on the streets selling matches.
I was lucky enough to have friends that loved me, friends who had warmth for my creative life. They are the best suns in the world. A woman like the Little Match Girl who has no friends can become frozen with anguish or even by anger. Also, one may have friends that are not suns. They may give comfort instead of informing you of your increasingly frozen circumstances. They may comfort instead of nurture.
You may have a plant that you put in the coal house and say kind words to it –that is comfort. Taking the plant out of the coal house, putting it in the sun, watering it, feeding it, talking to it - that is nurture.
Frozen people without nurture have a lot of “What if” daydreams. If you are in the frozen condtion you must refuse the comforting fantasy. It will kill you. You know how they go: “Some day…” and “If only I had…” and “He will change…”
The Little Match Girl would have benefitted more if her internal grandmother had shouted at her to “Wake up!” and find warmth instead of whisking her off into a fantasy land.
The Match Girl has a trade-off, an ill-conceived sense of commerce when she sells off the matches – the only thing she has to keep her warm. It is like being on a subsidence diet with the outside world, just eking out a life, taking the barest of nourishment then returning every day to whence you began, over and over.
It is hard to awaken to a life with a future because it is like you are trapped in a wretched life, hanging yourself on a hook daily that you cannot get down from. But get down you must. You need transitional movement and action that will set you on a new path. Get out. Seek friends who will nurture and help you, but even if you don’t have friends you must still escape, for as you start to glow inside you will find people who will nurture you and you will find a life that warms you inside.