Two Old Women: An Alaskan Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival illustrates the process of personal and community transformation — in less than 200 pages.
By reading this book, I picked up practical steps for being a better companion and working more effectively with other people in a community.
The story opens with a winter scene in the Arctic Region of Alaska. The people depicted are a nomadic group living on the edge of survival in this harsh environment. The group members consist of two old women, younger people, and the leader.
The leader realizes that he can not care for them for the two old women and keep the group members alive another year. So, he abandons them.
Following their separation from the group, the two old women draw on survival skills they learned years ago. They make excruciatingly slow but steady progress toward gathering and stockpiling food, supplies, etc.
Meanwhile, the main group attempts to build its own reservoir of supplies. However, they encounter difficulties they’re unequipped to handle.
Ultimately (spoiler alert!), the larger group reunites with the two old women, who have been more successful at preparing for the winter. The women realize that their unrealistic expectations of others, their constant complaining, and their unwillingness to contribute to the community’s well-being separated them from the rest of the group. At the same time, the group learns that these women have much to offer in terms of wisdom, knowledge, and endurance, even if they do not have youthful strength and vigor.
Lessons from Two Old Women
I learned a lot from reading the book and applying its wisdom to circumstances in my life. Here are specific lessons gleaned from Two Old Women:
Constant complaining is alienating and diminishing
The women complained about their ailments, which seemed to heighten the awareness of their weakness and frailty in the community. The complaints also seemed to be an integral part of their personality; to an extent, they abandoned their identities to become the weak, older people.
I’ve learned that I can express concerns or suggest improvements without being negative. In addition, articulating where I find joy is a clearer way of showing my unique personality and reinforcing the positive aspects of the community.
Traditional roles and rules can prevent us from realizing our potential
The group followed traditions blindly. Everyone seemed to have their roles, men and women, old and young. No one deviated from them or questioned them as there was fear that questioning or change would disrupt the community.
Initially, people persisted in these established roles to the point of abandoning the old people based on tradition. This situation reminds me of Jesus’s challenges of the Pharisees, who valued their traditions more than people. For example, in Matthew 12, Jesus is accused by the Pharisees of violating the law by working on the Sabbath when he heals a man.
Ironically, though, the community needed disruption and change in order to survive and thrive. Similarly, Jesus brings a valuable disruption to man-made tradition.
Our limitations don’t have to eliminate us from contributing to the community
The women couldn’t move as swiftly as the rest of the group and they probably had other limitations also. And though they did some work, they could have done much more. Instead, they expected others to help them nearly all the time.
After they were abandoned, the women started trapping food, making snowshoes, etc., using skills that had been dormant for years. They also pushed their own limits of physical endurance.
Though they had limits, they had not really explored and exploited their strengths. These strengths, knowing how to trap small animals for example, were sorely needed but absent from the skills of the rest of the group.
Sometimes, just because we don’t know everything about a subject or can’t complete a project entirely on our own, we rely too heavily on others. We expect other people to perform on our behalf, rather than working together and sharing ideas, knowledge, methods, etc.
At the same time, we often don’t like to admit our own shortcomings, gaps in knowledge, etc., or worse, take instruction from other people. But sharing the load and being willing to let others carry our load — when appropriate — is essential to building a healthy community.
Gratitude is a powerful influence
When the old women learned to show gratitude, rather than resentment or bitterness, they were happier and more content. They gained a more realistic yet hopeful perspective of how they and the others could live in a community.
When the younger people showed thankfulness for what the older contributed and when they felt truly appreciated, they were more motivated to work as a team.
Personal transformation can lead to community transformation
Before their abandonment, they were grumpy, fearful, unhappy, and helpless. After surviving on their own, they were joyful, grateful, confident, and self-reliant. They seemed to recognize their own strengths (and limits) and had a deeper understanding and appreciation of the strengths (and limits) of other members of the community.
The personal transformation of each of the two women led to community transformation. Such a dramatic change could not have happened without the change in heart of the women.
The story made me feel less guilty about being annoyed when others complained a lot or seemed envious of my position in life. It also made me more cognizant of my own behaviors and attitudes that distance me from others.
Two Old Women gave me insight into specific actions I could take to become a valued and beloved companion. For example, I intentionally stopped complaining, which made me realize how much I had complained in the past. As I practiced its principles, I gained a better understanding of how to be a part of a community, one that challenges its members to do their best yet also supports them in their times of need.