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Little One and the Monster Under the Bed (Or, the Surprising Truth About Finding Your Calling)

Following is the nineteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.


She circles unhurried amidst blue mountain peaks, the valley green and lush below. Allowing the wind to buoy her—she can feel it beneath her like a solid force, carrying her effortlessly upward—she loses track of the land and becomes lost in the infinite blue of the sky. Rising, falling, playing with the wind, the excitement of it running through her soul like air between her feathers, she passes countless hours in this way, nothing but sky above, nothing but strength below.

Until an ear-piercing scream breaks her reverie. She recognizes it as her own just before she feels the solidness of the air dissipate beneath her and the feeling of gravity—to which she was previously immune—reach up from the earth and grab hold of her body. Then she is falling, her wings flapping uselessly, the trees spiraling towards her more rapidly with every passing moment.

Just as her body is about to be shattered upon the limb of a giant pine, Ginger wakes up. Covered in sweat and breathing hard, she has a cold feeling in her belly. Somehow, without knowing why, she’s sure this isn’t just a dream. Something is wrong.

Pulling the blanket off of her, she rises from bed and exits her small room as quickly as she can. Instinctively, she turns down the hall away from her siblings’ rooms and towards the guest quarters.

When she gets to the room she’s looking for, she pauses with her hand on the door and takes a deep breath. He has to be safe, she tells herself firmly. There is nothing here that can hurt him.

She pushes open the door and sees the empty bed staring at her like a gaping mouth. There is so much she doesn’t know.

Breathing hard again, Ginger notes the sheets that lie twisted at the bottom of the bed. She increases the intensity of the glow that emanates from the walls—the light itself was not her invention, but the ability to adjust it is—and immediately sees a small pool of dark liquid on the stone floor. Hoping it’s not what she thinks it is, she kneels down, sees the dark red color of it, and realizes that it is.

She can feel her heart beating in her throat now. “Little One!” she calls desperately. Only silence answers. “Little One!” she screams.

Finally, a response: soft noises that sound like a rat chewing on a piece of wood. At first she thinks it’s coming from the corner of the room near the bed, but then she realizes it’s her siblings’ footsteps coming down the hall. The thick, stone walls cause sounds to echo down here, making them difficult to locate.

Thoughts surface while she waits. Thoughts like: Why today, of all days?

Sebastian is the first to arrive in the room. “What’s wrong?” he asks, his voice deep and his hair askew.

Ginger just points to the blood. “Little Bro!” he yells. “What happened? Where is he?”

“I have no idea,” Ginger answers as a few more siblings enter the doorway. “I just walked in and found him gone.”

“The demon came after him for revenge!” Corbett suggests, his eyes wide. “I knew he would!”

“I don’t think—” Ginger begins to say.

“Didn’t he mention something about a sorceress last night?” a sister named Margaret asks. “Maybe she came to claim him after he went to sleep.”

“The sorceress isn’t—”

“It was a dragon!” yells a brother in the back. Ginger can’t see which one. “I saw one circling yesterday and wondered why it was keeping an eye on us.”

Ginger shakes her head and opens her mouth, but her siblings are already racing away from the door and down the halls to pursue their various theories. She frowns slightly, but then shrugs. At least they’re trying to find their brother, and there is much she doesn’t know.

She looks around her one more time then walks out of the room to investigate her own theory. As she does, her thoughts move even faster than her feet.

Her new invention isn’t fully operational yet, she thinks, but if anyone came through the gate into the City of the Children of the Serpent God, it should let her know, and it might even have recorded an impression. She can’t imagine whom—or what—could have made it past the gate, but she did have the dream, her brother is missing, and the blood on the floor was real. Her legs begin to move more quickly.

She wonders briefly if she should have given Little One the other part of her new invention as soon as it was ready instead of waiting to surprise him. Perhaps that could have helped him with whatever happened last night. She thinks then of the other gift she has for him, the one she’s been carrying since leaving the Serpent God’s house. She regrets not having given it to him earlier.

There is so much she doesn’t know.

When she gets to the gate, her invention shows that nobody has crossed the threshold since she set it two days before. There are no impressions either, nor footprints when she checks.

By the time she returns to the living quarters, her siblings are coming back from their searches looking dejected or worried or both. Some are beginning to panic. Ginger can feel her own fear climbing from her belly into her chest and beginning to invade her lungs, making it hard to breathe. As her thoughts grow so rapid that they begin to interrupt one another, it occurs to her that fear is clouding her thinking. Recalling the Tree of Life, she makes space for the apprehension in her chest, gives it room to breathe, then takes a few deep breaths herself.

Just as the panic begins to subside and she feels her stomach settling back into place, she remembers a small, scratching noise from earlier and realizes with a start that she does, in fact, know where Little One is. And she knows why this happened today, of all days. She feels her lungs fill themselves full of air, then release it all at once, as if entirely of their own accord.

Ginger explains to her siblings that she knows where Little One is, that she’s sure he’s alright, but she won’t tell them where he is or how she knows. They want to go with her, but she tells them that it’s not a good idea. They trust her by now, so they stay in place while she heads down the corridor, though the disappointment is clear on their faces.

That’s okay, she thinks. Better that than the alternative.

She makes her way back down the hall towards Little One’s room. When she reaches the door, she knocks on it gingerly even though it’s already open.

“Little One?” she calls softly. There’s no answer. “Little One, I’m by myself. There’s nobody else here.” Silence. “Little One, I know you’re under there.”

Finally a cough comes from beneath the bed. Then the scratching noise again. Ginger stands in the doorway for a few more moments before realizing that he just moved over to make space for her.

She walks over to the bed, goes down on her hands and knees, then has to get even lower to wiggle her way under the bed next to her brother.

They lie there in silence for a moment, both of them on their bellies, looking into the shadows. Finally Ginger asks in a quiet voice: “Little One, what happened?”

His voice is equally soft when he answers. “I’m sorry, Ginger. I didn’t mean to worry you. Or the rest of them. It’s stupid, really.”

She shifts to take his hand in her own. “I’m sure it’s not stupid. What happened?”

“I had a dream. I was an eagle, flying high in the mountains.” Ginger’s skin prickles. “It was…incredible, really, but then suddenly I began to fall.” She feels his hand stiffen. “I woke up just before hitting a huge pine tree. I was already on the floor. I fell out of bed, Ginger. I literally fell on my face. Didn’t you see the blood? How much more obvious could it be?”

She frowns. “What do you mean?”

“The dream was a sign, a foretelling. Just when I think I’m doing great and nothing can go wrong, I’m going to fall. Failure is inevitable.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she says, giving his hand a squeeze.

“It’s not! I’m supposed to return to my family and village today, to complete my journey and help them remember who they really are. But I still don’t know how to do that. Even after all this time, I have no idea. I thought I could use your Lens of Truth, but then I lost it. Or got it destroyed. Now I have nothing, no plan, and no way to fulfill my purpose.”

Despite her best efforts to hide it, Ginger smiles. “Little One, you don’t need the Lens of Truth to help people discover their true selves.”

“No? How do I do it then?”

“How did you do it with the ogre or the Serpent God? How did you do it with me?”

“With you? What are you talking about?”

“I worked on the Lens of Truth for five years. It was the most complex invention I’ve ever created.” She sees his mouth open, can imagine the apology deep in his eyes. “No,” she continues before he can give it voice. “Please don’t apologize. Just listen. My effort to make the Lens of Truth was so all-consuming that I lost track of where it ended and where I began. I began to think that its success was inextricably tied to my own. That its worth was my own. When the Sorceress broke it, for a brief moment I felt like I had lost everything that mattered in life.”

She pauses, then chuckles. “But then I realized how foolish I was being. I’m an inventor, Little One. I’m bigger than any one of my inventions. Some will be great and some will be terrible, but it’s my ability to create new things, not the success of any one in particular, that makes me who I am.”

Her brother is quiet for a moment. She can feel his breath on her arm. “So what,” he finally whispers, “I’m supposed to go back to my village and break things so that people wake up to who they really are?”

This time she doesn’t try to hide her smile. “Maybe,” she laughs.

His eyebrows furrow. “Be serious,” he says. “I’ve learned so much about what I’m here to do, but I still have no idea how to actually do it.”

Words are important here, she knows, so she waits for them to form fully in her mind. “You can’t not do it,” she finally says slowly, then senses the presence of more. “How did you show the ogre who he was? Or our father?” She holds her breath.

“That’s the thing,” Little One answers. He sounds very much like a scared five-year-old. “I don’t know. I didn’t even try.”

She breathes a sigh of relief. The words were good ones after all. “Exactly,” she says. “You didn’t have to try because you do it so naturally. You can’t not do it, Little One. You’ll help people remember who they are no matter what you’re doing because it’s a part of who you are. Like water rolling down a mountain. It can take many paths, but it’s always going to end up in the sea.”

She can feel him breathe more deeply. Then he stops. “But what if I’m not good enough? What if I do it but I still fail?”

This time she doesn’t have to wait for the words; they are already there. “It has always been enough, brother. Look at the people you’ve already helped—the ogre, the Serpent God, the village, Abdul, the genie, me… You are the son of a god. You have a gift, as we all do. Do not ask how big it is. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you give it as freely as possible.”

Little One’s hand touches his broken nose and then the bottom of the bed above him. “I don’t feel like the son of a god right now.”

Ginger smiles, thinks she can feel him silently and perhaps reluctantly do the same. More words come to her. “To be human is to be like a stream, Little One. When you look at it, you see water, rocks, mud, old leaves, and clouds of dirt that get stirred up. We are all of that in our earthly forms. But look at a stream again and you can see the reflection of majestic trees, bright green leaves, and the infinite blue of the heavens. We are that as well. We have both sides, neither one of which can we deny.”

Her brother is quiet for a long time. Ginger stares at the shadows, feels the heat of his body beside her, and wonders where the words keep coming from.

Finally, in a small, very quiet voice, Little One asks, “What if they don’t welcome me back, Ginger? What if they don’t want what I have to offer?”

And so they’ve arrived at the heart of it, Ginger thinks. She’s somewhat surprised to find that she has words for this too. “When the sorceress said You can only be lost if you don’t know the way home, you said you understood. What exactly did you understand?”

Even in the relative darkness under the bed, she can see him blush. “It’s going to sound strange,” he says. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”

She doesn’t hesitate. “Try me.”

“Well, I realized that I’ve never felt more at home than when I’m feeling my own strength, the golden warmth of my gifts, and helping others to see theirs as well. I just feel so natural and relaxed, like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be when that happens. And I guess one thing I have learned on this journey is how to find that, no matter where I am. So I guess I do actually know the way home, if you look at it that way.”

“Exactly,” Ginger says, nodding with satisfaction as vigorously as she can in the small space beneath the bed.

“Exactly?”

“Yes, exactly. The people in your village may not welcome you back at first. They may not want what you have to offer. It takes time for people to learn, to wake up, to be able to see what they most need. But as long as you can go home—to the true home you just described—anytime, that won’t matter so much. You’ll be able to wait until the others are ready to hear what you have to say.”

“You think?” he asks, and the uncertainty in his voice makes her want to wrap him in her arms.

There is so much she doesn’t know, but this she does. “Absolutely, Little One. Of this I am certain.”

Silence sits alongside them for several long moments. Finally, in another soft voice, though this one more sure of itself, Little One speaks. “I really don’t want to leave you,” her brother says.

Warm energy rises within her as she remembers that she has something for this as well, though this time it isn’t words. She looks her brother in the eyes. “Me neither,” she says fervently. “Which is why I’ve been working on a new invention.”

His eyebrows go up. “The one that guards the gate and takes the impression of anyone who passes?”

“It started that way,” she says, hitting her head on the bottom of the bed in her excitement. “I realized that taking impressions could also be used for another purpose. So I made this.” She rolls onto her side so she can take the small, mechanical bird out of her pocket. “It records an impression of your voice, then flies to whatever destination you program into it. Then somebody else can replay the impression and, of course, record their own and send it back.”

His eyes are so wide they look like they might break. “So you can talk to me through this bird, and I can talk back?”

She smiles. “Yes, Little One. It’ll take an hour or two to fly from the City to your village, but we can talk to each other this way as often as we like.”

His smile is now bigger than hers. “That’s amazing, Ginger! I have no idea how you come up with these things.”

“I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for you.” Her smile fades as she remembers something. “Perhaps now is a good time to give you the other gift I have for you. Hold on.”

She wriggles out from under the bed, then jogs quickly to her own room and back. When she enters the room again, Little One is sitting on top of the bed waiting for her, running his fingers over his broken nose.

“It becomes you,” she says. “You look distinguished, sophisticated. Like you know something of the world.” Another smile. “Here,” she says, before he can respond. She hands him the folded pieces of paper wrapped together with string.

“Is this another invention?” he asks, thankfully running his fingers over the package now instead of his nose.

“No,” she answers. “It’s a gift. From our father, the Serpent God. I got back to his palace after you’d already left, and he sent this along with me to give to you.” She doesn’t say more, doesn’t know any more, but hopes it will be clear to him.

Little One unties the string and unfolds a piece of paper. Numbers and words cover the inside of it. As he’s reading, he shifts positions and a few small, brown balls slip out the side of another piece of paper in his lap.

When he finally looks up, she raises a questioning eyebrow. “It’s a recipe,” he says, his brows slightly furrowed. “For pancakes.” Suddenly a grin breaks out on his face. “The most delicious food I’ve ever had in my life.”

Ginger laughs. “And those things?” She indicates the small, brown balls.

“Seeds,” Little One answers happily. “For pea plants. Apparently you’re supposed to roast the peas and grind them up, which I’d never have thought in a million years. And the rest is made from the same wheat that we already grow in the village and a few other simple foods. It’s weird. I could’ve sworn they were made from special ingredients that only a god has access to.”

She smiles to herself. It’s a shared condition of all humans, she thinks, this not knowing. And as scary as it can sometimes be, it is also a gift.

She leans over and gives her brother a hug. He returns it, fiercely. They hold each other for a few moments, then finally let go.

“I love you, Ginger,” Little One says shyly.

“I love you too,” she says, emotion choking her words.

She helps her brother pack, then say goodbye to his siblings while avoiding their questions about what happened (she’ll tell them later, in a way they’ll understand). They line up at the gate to see their brother off, all waves and smiles and promises to visit, and she thinks how far they’ve come. All of them, in so many different ways.

The last she sees of Little One, he’s walking into the shadows of the woods, infinite possibilities almost visible as they spread out before him like a fertile field, a cloudless sky, an ocean inconceivably vast.


Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Say Hello to Your Inner Critic (Or, Why You Can’t Always Believe What You Think)

Recently I was lying in bed, anxiously tossing and turning, my mind spinning as I fruitlessly tried to relax and go to sleep. The things that usually help me calm down weren’t working, and I had no idea why I was so tense or what I could do to fix it.

After wrestling with my thoughts for what seemed like forever, I finally felt my body begin to release its frantic energy like a top that’s spun itself out. In one of those first moments of stillness a realization surfaced: I was struggling so much not from lack of effort but from an overabundance of it.

In the face of life-altering changes, developments in the health of a close family member, and really just a whole lot of uncertainty and ambiguity, some old patterns had taken over. I was trying to do everything perfectly, from searching for a flawless new home for our family to maturely handling all the fear that change brings up for me, all the while handling my normal responsibilities with ease and grace during a particularly busy time. Without meaning to, I’d raised my expectations for myself so high that despite my best efforts, I was failing to meet them.

In other words, my Inner Critic had taken over.

What Is an Inner Critic?

Perhaps the most important thing to know about the Inner Critic is that we all have one. It’s that voice in our heads that’s always looking for what we’re doing wrong, where we’re not measuring up, and what we should be doing better. It’s also probably the single biggest obstacle to finding your calling, or really just growing, expanding, or moving towards what you want in any way, shape, or form.

When we listen to the Critic (and it’s hard not to, as it tends to speak with such volume and authority that it can feel like unquestionable truth), we doubt ourselves and our capabilities. We feel like what we want isn’t possible, and what we’re doing isn’t enough. We also tend to hold onto old patterns that keep us stuck in the status quo.

There’s a reason for that. The Critic, though problematic, is actually trying to help us. It wants to keep us safe, and it believes that the best way to do that is to make sure that we stick with what’s familiar. As far as the Critic is concerned, its job is to preserve the status quo, where at least we know we can survive, whether it’s an engrained behavioral pattern or a job we’ve been in for fifteen years. And because it’s far more concerned with safety than it is with happiness, it’ll do so by any means necessary, even if that means making us miserable.

How Do I Deal With My Inner Critic?

Despite all this, the problem isn’t that we have an Inner Critic but that we believe it. The most straightforward and powerful way to avoid falling prey to it, then, is simply to recognize when it’s the one talking.

In my own example of the other night, once I realized that all my spinning thoughts were coming from my Inner Critic, they immediately lost their power. My whole body relaxed and felt more settled; I had access to a sense of my own strength and goodness once again; and I was able to let go of the thoughts that I knew weren’t helpful. They became like flies buzzing around my head; unpleasant, perhaps, but hardly consequential.

It’s kind of like how at the end of The Labyrinth Jennifer Connolly’s character, having gone to great lengths to battle David Bowie’s Goblin King the entire movie, finally defeats him simply by saying the words, “You have no power over me.”

The process may be simple, but it’s certainly not easy. Just as I had a hard time identifying my Critic even after years of working with it, I have clients all the time who tell me, “You know, I don’t think I really have an Inner Critic,” or, “Mine’s just really quiet.”  Maybe so, but given what I know about human beings, it’s much more likely that their Critic is quite clever—mostly, I think, because they are.

Inner Critics get smarter as we do. As we learn to identify them, they learn how to hide from us. They can also turn anything we discover into a new weapon. The most reliable response to learning that the Inner Critic exists, for example, is to begin criticizing yourself for criticizing yourself so much.

If the Inner Critic learns as quickly as we do, then the question becomes: How can we recognize it consistently enough to continue moving towards our calling despite its wily efforts?

To be honest, I don’t have a surefire, one-size-fits-all answer. But to help, here are 15 definite clues that your thoughts are coming from your Critic:

1. The message is loud.

If the thought is insistent, authoritative, and impossible to ignore, it’s most likely your Inner Critic. If, on the other hand, you have to get quiet to hear it, it feels more like a whisper, or it takes its sweet time to surface, chances are your Inner Wisdom is talking. I don’t know why this is except perhaps that most of us have a bias that makes us more concerned with what our Critics have to say than our Wisdom, so we hear them more easily. The good news is, the more we listen for Wisdom, the more easily we hear it, and the less we buy into our Critics’ views, the less prominent they are.

2. You feel rushed.

Inner Critics tend to be obsessed with speed, even when speed doesn’t matter. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like I should be moving faster and getting more done, even though I consistently find that I not only enjoy life more but am also more productive when I move slowly (or at least don’t rush). Similarly, almost all my clients worry that they’re somehow behind in their careers, too late in accomplishing whatever they want to accomplish. The truth is, we can trust the timing in our lives. We come to things when we’re ready and when the time is right. Like an oak tree worrying that it’s growing too slowly, we lose sight of the fact that it takes time to develop profound beauty and stature, and that it doesn’t really matter if somebody else does it first.

3. You have the thought, “Everyone else is ___[fill in the blank]___.”

A favorite tool of Inner Critics is setting up false comparisons to others. “Everyone else has this figured out already.” “Everyone else is more successful than I am.” “Nobody else struggles with decisions as much as I do.” Whatever the message, it leaves us feeling inferior and inadequate. The truth is, everybody excels in some ways and struggles in others. Comparing the area in which you struggle to the area in which somebody else excels is a recipe for unnecessary self doubt. Not to mention the fact that things aren’t always what they seem. When in doubt, remember the oft-repeated advice: Don’t compare your insides with other people’s outsides.

4. You decide that you can’t do something before you’ve even tried.

Inner Critics don’t want us to take risks or step into the unknown. A great way to accomplish this is to convince us that any goal we may adopt is impossible from the start. I’ve had many clients who thought they couldn’t support themselves or their families while doing what they love, only to find a way to do just that after—shockingly—actually trying. In my experience, if we’re flexible with exactly what form it takes, we can always find ways to realize what we want most, as long as we don’t listen to our Critic and give up before we start.

5. You conclude that if it hasn’t happened by now, it never will.

There’s a theory that Inner Critics develop in childhood, which I’m prone to believe because they’re often quite child-like. One example of this is their lack of patience or a larger perspective. Often what we long for most is complex and requires time to learn, practice, ready ourselves, and gather support. Our Critics tend to forget this, however, and mistakenly conclude that we’ll never find what we want if we haven’t already. They lack the perspective to see that in real life the shortest distance between two points isn’t usually a straight line.

6. A decision feels urgent, dire, or a matter of life and death.

Another example of lacking a larger perspective is the Critics’ near-constant sense of urgency and desperation. They tend to make us feel like we have to get this right, and quickly, or everything will fall apart. In truth, our happiness and well-being are supported by many things and rarely hinge on one decision. Plus, just about any course we take can either be reversed or adjusted along the way so that it works better for us. I’ve gotten to the point where if I’m feeling any urgency or distress about something, I won’t make a decision until I no longer feel that way, because it’s a sure sign my Critic is in charge.

7. You keep returning to the worst-case scenario.

If you find yourself thinking about unpleasant future scenarios over and over, you’ve probably forgotten that in general positive outcomes are at least as likely as negative ones, and the ones you fear most are almost always the least likely of all. This tendency to focus on what might go wrong or to feel like the worst outcome is the most probable isn’t usually based on facts, logic, or even previous experience. It is, rather—you guessed it—another Inner Critic trick to keep us safe in the status quo.

8. You feel guilty for wanting more.

I’ve heard so many people express guilt for not being satisfied with what others might think was a good job, or a well-paying one, that I wrote a blog post about it a while back. The truth is, longing to do work you love isn’t a sign that you’re greedy; it simply means your gifts are wanting to express themselves in more powerful ways. That’s a good thing, not only for you, but also for the world you’re going to benefit through your efforts. If you feel guilty, it’s not because you’re ungrateful; it’s simply your Inner Critic trying to keep you from taking a risk and making a change.

9. You’re focused on what others might think.

If you find yourself worrying about what your family, friends, coworkers, bosses, or anybody else will think of you making a career change (or otherwise following your heart), then your Inner Critic has taken the wheel. We’re social animals, designed (genetically and physiologically) to live in groups and thus care what others think of us. Despite this, most of us understand at least on some level that in our current world our lives and happiness no longer depend so completely on the opinions of others. Our Inner Critics, however, aren’t quite so enlightened, or else they find our conditioned fear a convenient tool to keep us in the status quo. Either way, the solution lies in noticing how much we’re focusing on others, having compassion for its physiological roots, and gently reminding ourselves that it’s no longer necessary (or even possible) to please everyone around us.

10. You’re caught in familiar patterns.

This one can be a bit hard to see for ourselves because our patterns are often so ingrained that, like fish in water, we stare right through them because they seem such an immutable part of our experience.  But we all have ways of avoiding anxiety and trying to feel safe, whether it’s procrastinating, worrying, blaming, overly focusing on the needs of others, numbing or distracting ourselves, trying to be perfect [ahem] or any host of other problematic patterns. The patterns developed for a reason and serve us in some ways (if not in others), so there’s no shame in them, but they do limit what’s possible for us and usually keep us stuck in a rut. Inner Critics don’t mind the latter at all, however, which is why they see their job as keeping these patterns in place. (That’s why we experience such strong internal resistance whenever we try to change one of these core habits.) On the other hand, when you’re responding to a familiar situation in a new way, doing something you don’t normally do, or feeling scared, vulnerable, or out of your comfort zone, you’ve probably either quieted your Inner Critic or broken free from its grasp.

11. You think, “I should…” or “I have to…”

Everything we do is a choice, even the things we don’t want to do. I don’t like paying taxes, for example, but I choose to do it because I like where I live and don’t want to go to jail. When we think “I should…” or “I have to…” our Inner Critics are trying to make us believe that we have no choice but to do what they want us to do. This is never actually the case. We always have options. When you allow yourself to put all the alternatives on the table and then make a decision based on where your deepest desires and Inner Wisdom point you, you discover a freedom that’s inherent in all of us, no matter our circumstances. A simple way to practice this is to change “I should…” to “I want to…” and then listen for what follows.

12. You feel resentful.

Resentment is a great sign that you’ve denied a desire or been less than true to yourself on account of your Inner Critic. (Never believe your resentment is about anybody other than you.) As we just saw, Inner Critics try to make us do what they want, rather than what we do. When we betray our needs and desires in order to follow their dictates and do what they think will make us safe, resentment naturally follows. So the next time you feel resentful, get curious about where you didn’t stand up for what matters most to you, and how you can make a choice more aligned with who you are and who you want to be moving forward.

13. You feel ashamed.

Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Inner Critics often start with a grain of truth (such as, “You didn’t get offered the job you interviewed for”) and then generate a bunch of bogus conclusions, like:

  • “You’re terrible at interviewing”;
  • “Nobody wants what you have to offer”;
  • “You’ll never find a job”; or
  • “There’s something wrong with you.”

These conclusions generate a sense of shame and unworthiness, but they’re not actually true. They’re just designed to get you to stop trying (and thus avoid risks) or try harder (and thereby succeed). Either way, the shame isn’t helpful. Your heartfelt desires are a carrot that makes shame’s stick unnecessary, and if everybody who ever failed gave up, humankind would never have made it out of the Stone Age.

14. You feel small.

Inner Critics tend to make us feel weak, inferior, unimportant, and powerless. When I’ve been listening to my Critic, I often find that my shoulders have collapsed, my back is rounded, and I’m physically trying to take up as little space as possible. When we’re listening to our Inner Wisdom, on the other hand, we tend to feel how strong, competent, and powerful we are. We’re willing to take up space. We realize that we’re bigger than our problems, the challenges in front of us, and even our fear. If you’re ever not sure whether a thought is coming from your Inner Critic or Inner Wisdom, take a moment to notice your posture and how big or small you feel.

15. You’re in your head.

Our Inner Critics live in our minds and thoughts. Our bodies, on the other hand, are always in the present moment and free from judgment. If you’re caught up in your thoughts and unaware of what’s happening in your body, it’s very likely that your Critic is active. To counteract this, just bring your attention back to your body and whatever sensations you feel there, over and over again.

Bonus: You wish you could change something (anything) about yourself.

Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki once said, “Each of you is perfect…and you could all use a little improvement.” Our Inner Critics would like us to solely focus on the second part of this idea because they think feeling bad about our flaws will help us overcome them. The opposite is actually true, and if you’re not quite sure how to reconcile this paradox, it’s best to focus on the first part first. Once you truly understand how perfect you are, you’ll naturally want to learn and get better, not because you need to change, but because you deserve to grow.

The Final Step

The more you observe your Inner Critic, the more you begin to realize that it sounds like a frightened child. Identifying its messages, soothing its fears, and finding out for yourself what’s actually true can go a long way towards freeing yourself from its power (and pain). But there’s still one more thing to do in order to move towards your calling, and that’s to listen for your Inner Wisdom.

It helps to get quiet and curious and listen, letting it arise rather than trying to figure it out. When I did this the other morning when I was having trouble sleeping, I got a very clear message:

Life is messy, man. I am messy. That’s okay. Overall, I do a good job.

I could feel the truth of that, the peace and freedom and strength of it, all the way down into my bones.

Over to You

What does your Inner Critic say or feel like to you? What helps you break free from its grasp?

A second great way to lessen the power of your Inner Critic is to talk about it with others. You can begin doing this by sharing your answers in the comments below.


Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

Little One and the Lens of Truth

Following is the eighteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.


Little One was ready to go home. Now that he knew about Ginger’s invention, he was excited to use it to help his family and village discover the truth about who they were.

The trouble was, some words were stuck in Little One’s mind like food between his teeth. The more he tried to pry them loose, the more entrenched they became.

“I am irrevocably tied to the genie,” they kept repeating. “As he grows strong, so I grow weak. As long as he is fed, we are both prisoners. It is only when somebody sees our true nature that we will be set free.”

The words had been spoken by Abdul, the bony blue man who materialized alongside a fat, overconfident genie when Little One complimented a lamp that appeared in his path while he was searching for his father. Abdul had seemed less than happy with his living situation, and Little One had asked how he could help. He hadn’t understood the blue man’s response at the time, but now he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

It was the phrase “true nature” that reverberated most, the same phrase Ginger had used when describing the purpose of her invention, the Lens of Truth. “It shows our true nature in a way that anyone can see,” she’d explained shortly before revealing their siblings as beautiful, multi-colored light, the villagers as fantastic animals and beasts, and the demon as a lonely and frightened child.

Little One couldn’t help but wonder if Ginger’s invention could somehow help Abdul free himself from what appeared to be an equally obligatory and odious relationship with the genie. When he imagined himself sharing the lamp with such an overbearing and self-important roommate, he began to shudder.

When he said as much to Ginger, telling her the full story of his encounter with the genie, her first response was to frown thoughtfully. “Sure, it’s worth a try,” she said finally, nodding her head slowly. “But Little One, you should know that the Lens of Truth doesn’t always work like it did at the demon’s headquarters. A lot of the time things are more…complicated than that.”

Little One had said he understood even though he didn’t. But despite longing to go home, he was happy to have the chance to try to aid Abdul, who’d gone out of his way to tell him about the Guardian and the Guru, and thus helped him find his father, however indirectly.

The question had then been how to find the lamp. He’d stumbled across it in the endless grasslands beyond the great abyss, and last he’d seen it, it was shooting up into the sky so fast that it quickly disappeared from view. Still, he had an idea.

“It was such a beautiful lamp,” he said loudly, to nobody in particular, once they’d made their preparations. Ginger gave him an odd look. “Such fine craftsmanship, and incredibly shiny. It caught the light like nothing I’ve ever seen, reflecting the rays as if it were the sun itself.” Ginger looked at him even more strangely, but he went on. “And the genie inside! He must have been the most powerful being in existence to grant so many of my wishes so easily. I can’t imagine a more impressive creature exists anywhere in the world.”

Ginger opened her mouth to say something when suddenly a rattling noise caught their attention. Their eyes shot skyward just as a small object came hurtling towards them, shaking back and forth awkwardly and vibrating so much that it looked like it might explode. A few seconds later it struck the earth, and on the rebound two blue forms shot out of a small hole in what looked like a snout, one large and one small, forming themselves into the shapes of the genie and Abdul.

“So you like my lamp,” the genie said as he looked at Ginger, a creepy smile playing across his thick, blue lips. “Wait til you have a chance to appreciate what lives inside.”

Little One cleared his throat loudly. The genie’s massive head swung towards him, his eyes narrowing suddenly as he recognized who it was. “You!” he bellowed angrily. “Why have you called me back? I gave you your wishes already. Everyone knows that three’s the limit.”

“I don’t want any more wishes,” Little One said calmly, trying to inch towards Abdul without calling attention to his movement.

“I already told you, no givebacks, no returns, and absolutely no exchanges.” The genie’s face had taken on a purplish hue.

“I don’t want to return anything,” Little One said slowly. He was almost there. “I have no complaints about anything you gave me.”

“Then what do you want?” the genie asked suspiciously. “My generosity only extends so far. Just like my patience.”

Finally Little One was within arm’s reach of Abdul. Putting a hand on each shoulder, he was happy to realize that the man felt more solid than he looked. “Now, Ginger!” he cried, turning towards his sister.

Ginger uncovered her invention, which was sitting on a large boulder next to her in the clearing they’d chosen for this purpose. As she adjusted the angle of the large box, sunlight began to be redirected and refracted, washing over Abdul in increasingly powerful waves. As it did, the image of half a man began to become discernable.

The man was somewhat larger than Abdul, and not nearly so skinny. He wasn’t blue, either. He had thick, straight hair and a copious moustache, only part of which was visible because all trace of the man disappeared across a vertical line that appeared to slice him in half from head to foot.

The image looked down at himself, its eyes wide. “You have returned me to my former self,” he said, his voice filled with awe. “Almost my former self,” he added as the hand reached across the broad chest, finding only air where the other shoulder should have been. Suddenly Abdul’s voice sounded an octave higher. “Does the sorceress know about this?” His eyes grew even wider. “Do you work for the sorceress?”

“I don’t work for anybody,” Little One assured him. “I wanted to help you since you helped me the last time we met.” A memory tickled the back of his mind. “Wait, what sorceress are you talking about?”

“The sorceress who forced us into that accursed lamp,” Abdul answered. “I used to be a normal man. Well, not normal, I suppose. I was a prince. I was to inherit a kingdom that encompassed all the lands from mountain to sea, from grassland to forest to marsh. I was—” Abdul grunted as what looked like a giant, blue boulder barreled into him, forcing him to stumble several steps to his right and nearly causing him to fall.

As Abdul returned to his previous appearance, the other half of the man appeared in the light of Ginger’s machine. A large, satisfied smile lit his face as he stared down at his body.

“Oh, it feels good to be myself again,” the genie said as Abdul glared at him reproachfully.

Little One wasn’t sure what to do. “You’re the prince too?” he asked doubtfully.

“Too?” the genie asked, chuckling loudly. “I am the only prince. There only used to be one of us—of me.”

“So how did you become a genie?” Little One asked. “And a—whatever he is?” He nodded towards Abdul.

“Well, as he was saying, we were a prince. Ahem. I was a prince. A powerful one too. But even powerful princes can’t get everything they want. I was disappointed to say the least to learn that princes and kings are also subject to illness, old age, and death. Even worse, not every woman finds power seductive. On the contrary, many are intimidated by it. You’d be surprised how hard it is for a prince to find a pretty woman to share a kiss.”

Little One heard a low growl to his left just before he saw another blue streak—this one far skinnier—plow into the half-image of the man. The genie’s eyebrows shot up in surprise just before he stumbled to his left, leaving Abdul back in the light of Ginger’s invention.

“That felt better than I would have imagined,” Abdul said, rubbing his hand over his half-formed head and neck. “Anyway, as I was saying, I was beginning to find that being a prince wasn’t as great as you might expect. That’s when I first met the sorceress. I ran into her on a walk in the woods, and she told me she could give me the power to make any wish come true, no matter how improbable. She said there was a cost, of course, but I never thought—”

Abdul flew, quite literally, almost a full body’s length into the air. The opposite half of the mustached man appeared in the light of Ginger’s machine. Little One heard a resounding thud and sighed loudly.

“I never thought I’d be split in two and forced to live in a lamp,” the genie finished, looking very satisfied with himself. “It also never occurred to me that when the sorceress spoke of making wishes come true, she was only referring to those of other people. I suppose I should have been more specific.”

Little One had an idea. “Tell me about this sorceress,” he said, wondering absentmindedly if she could be the same one. “What did she look like?” He made his way towards Abdul, who was brushing himself off behind the genie and appeared to be trying to bore holes through his back with his glare.

“She was beautiful and tall, with deep brown eyes you could get lost in,” the genie sighed.

Little One gave Ginger a meaningful look. She picked up his intention immediately. “What was she wearing?” she asked the genie, who turned to face her.

“A tight-fitting red dress…” began the genie. Little One didn’t hear the rest as he leaned in close to Abdul.

“I have an idea to help you recover your old self permanently,” he whispered. “Go stand next to the genie so that the machine’s light covers both of you at the same time. You need to see yourselves whole.”

To his surprise, Abdul shook his head, his eyes wide. “No way,” he said. “I can’t do that. He’ll kill me.”

“Come on,” Little One whispered more loudly. “It’s the only way!”

“Uh-uh. Nope. Negative. He’s hard enough to live with when he’s happy. When he’s angry…” Abdul shuddered. “I am sorry,” he added after a moment. “I appreciate your trying.” He looked so miserable that Little One’s frustration almost turned to sympathy.

Almost, but not quite. Abdul was so close to being freed. All he had to do was find the courage to go stand next to his other half. Little One and Ginger had worked hard to give them the opportunity to break their curse or whatever it was that bound them to the lamp, and now they were about to throw it all away.

Grunting, Little One was moving before he realized what was happening. He found himself stooping down to scoop Abdul up over his shoulder, then running back to the genie who was still going on about the sorceress’ beauty. When he dropped Abdul to the ground, the genie stopped talking long enough to turn around and look at them.

“Oh, no,” the genie said. “He doesn’t deserve to be his old self again. Our old self. My old self.” He took a step away from Abdul.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake!” Little One exclaimed, near exasperation. “He’s you!”

Summoning all his strength, he ran to the other side of the genie and pushed him towards Abdul. At first nothing happened as the genie’s weight refused to give way, but then he budged a finger’s width, and then another, and Little One kept pushing, red in the face and nearly out of breath, until he finally bumped up against Abdul. For a split second Little One saw the mirror images of the mustached man almost meeting in the light of Ginger’s machine, the line that separated them shrinking into nothing.

Just as it was about to disappear completely, Ginger yelled and the light from her machine disappeared.

When he turned back to see what had happened, Little One saw that Ginger was surprised but unharmed; her machine was on its side on the ground a few paces from the rock; and a sorceress was standing behind her with one arm extending out towards the Lens of Truth. Abdul and the genie, meanwhile, were now wrestling on the ground, each pulling the other’s hair and struggling to pin the other one down.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Little One growled.

Turning back towards the sorceress, who had lowered her arm, he saw that she was wearing a well-fitting red dress. Tall, with large, brown eyes, she was undeniably pretty. She was equally undeniably the same sorceress he’d met previously on his journey.

He remembered when he first saw her standing behind him in the boulder field. She’d told him that she knew what he was looking for, even though at that point he still didn’t. She asked him to help her kill a monster that was preying on innocent travelers. If he succeeded, she said, she would take him directly to what he sought. If he failed, she’d have no choice but to take him back to where he started.

He’d reluctantly agreed. But the situation was more complex than she’d let on. The monster turned out to be a rather likeable ogre who, like Little One, had left his village because something was calling him to explore the mountains and the legend of the multi-colored lightning. The sorceress had made a similar bargain with the ogre, promising to show him what was calling him if he robbed enough treasure from the people passing by.

When he realized that the monster was just another victim of the sorceress, Little One hadn’t wanted to kill him. Instead, he encouraged the ogre to return to his village and let the sorceress take him back to his own so that he could start his journey again.

Remembering this, and seeing Abdul and the genie rolling around on the ground in front of him, Little One felt heat rise within him. How many people had this evil sorceress tricked? How many lives had she ruined?

Little One thought of the evil demon who was transformed when Ginger’s machine revealed his true nature as a small, frightened boy and made a quick decision. He couldn’t let the sorceress destroy any more lives.

Moving as quickly as he could, he ran towards where the machine lay on the ground. Picking it up, he saw that it was undamaged, so he turned it as fast as he could towards the sorceress, adjusting the angle to catch the sunlight.

For a moment only the machine’s rays washed over her, her form swaying at first as light particles bounced and danced wildly before finally calming and settling down to reveal…the exact same form as before, a beautiful, brown-eyed woman in a red dress.

In the exact moment that Little One’s brain registered this fact, he felt an intense vibration within his skull followed by a deafening boom and a sudden release of pressure. For a split second, Little One thought that maybe his brain had exploded.

Then he realized that his hands were empty and looked down. Horrified, he saw Ginger’s machine in tiny pieces all around him. He groaned and looked to her to apologize, but she just shrugged and looked back to the sorceress.

“What, did you think my true nature might be more beautiful than I am? More innocent or kind-hearted?” the sorceress asked, her lips curving into a dangerous smile. “Perhaps you thought that showing it to me might teach me the error of my ways.” She laughed, an unpleasant sound.

Little One didn’t say anything. “Don’t confuse what you don’t understand with bad intent, Little One,” she continued, her tone sickly sweet. “That mistake has caused more harm than the actions of even the most evil villains.”

Little One’s eyes narrowed. “Are you trying to say that your intentions are good? I find that hard to believe given what you’ve done here today and nearly impossible if you consider all your evil deeds in the past.”

“Evil deeds? Me?” the sorceress asked, her eyes widening in mock surprise.

Little One had no patience for her theatrics. “You tried to get me to kill a perfectly nice ogre!” he yelled.

“Knowing full well that you wouldn’t,” she answered calmly.

“You tricked him into killing passersby and stealing their things!”

“In fairness, he made the decision to do those things himself. I simply encouraged him.” Little One spluttered. “Stealing and killing,” she went on, “are what most ogres do naturally. That one, however, isn’t like most ogres. But he never would have figured out that his path is a peaceful one if he remained in his village. That realization required time on his own, and some extra guidance.”

Little One was beside himself. “So you let him kill multiple travelers so that he could learn that he wasn’t a killer?” he screamed.

The sorceress nodded. “Yes, I’ll admit it wasn’t the best plan, but it was all I could come up with on such short notice. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. You had just received the call yourself, and I expected you to come play your part in helping him realize his path much earlier than you did. How was I to know that you would resist the call for so long?”

Little One shook his head. “So it’s my fault now? I suppose it’s my fault too that you took me back to my village and I had to start completely over.”

“Of course it’s not your fault,” the sorceress said softly. Little One wasn’t sure if she was mocking him or not. “I’m simply saying that we do our best, but nobody can see what will happen or when. Helping others is a messy process at best.” She smoothed her skirts. “You needed to talk to the ogre so that you would learn that you were the son of the Serpent God, but you wouldn’t have believed me if I hadn’t been slightly sinister. Nobody trusts a kind sorceress. Sometimes I have to play the part that people expect in order to get them to take me seriously.” She took a deep breath. “And I delivered you back to your village because it was the fastest way to get you to the Chamber of Doom. I don’t have to explain to you how important that ultimately was to your journey.”

The heat in Little One’s chest flared higher. “You expect me to believe that you did all that out of concern for my welfare? That you were helping the ogre?”

“I don’t expect you to believe anything, Little One. I am simply offering you a different perspective. A more accurate one, as it turns out.”

“And what about Abdul and the genie? What possible good intentions could explain you splitting them in two and forcing them to live inside this god-forsaken lamp?” Out of the corner of his eye, Little One saw the genie and Abdul stop rolling on the ground as the genie shot him a hurt look. “This beautiful but tiny and cramped lamp, I meant to say,” he quickly amended.

“Ah, yes,” the sorceress said. “Well, he himself told you that he sought to have every wish fulfilled. He suffered under the illusion that getting whatever he wanted would bring him fulfillment. It was not unlike your father’s battle with himself, or your struggle with the Guardian. Only this man was clearly losing that fight. This”—she waved her hand towards the two blue creatures on the floor, who stared back at her curiously—“seemed a fitting way to help him discover the true nature of fulfillment, while perhaps teaching others the same lesson. It seemed to work pretty well with you,” she said brightly.

Little One grumbled under his breath. “What about today? Surely they’ve learned their lesson. Why did you interrupt our efforts to bring them back to their normal state?”

The sorceress smiled gently. “They’ll return to their normal state when they’ve learned everything they need to from the experience. Nobody can rush that, not even me. People wake up in their own time. What you did here today may well make it happen faster, but no transformation would last unless they’re truly ready. I hope you can see as clearly as I can that that’s not yet the case.”

Little One looked again to see that the genie still had a fist full of Abdul’s hair, and Abdul’s knee was pushing into the genie’s groin even as he listened to what the sorceress was saying. “I suppose I can,” he admitted reluctantly. “But they’re obviously suffering. Shouldn’t we try to lessen the pain?”

The sorceress’ eyes grew soft.  “Oh, sweet boy. Would that it were not so, but it is often the pain that wakes us up,” she said kindly.

He looked over at Ginger, who gave him a sympathetic smile. “So what, I shouldn’t try to help anyone, since it won’t do any good anyway?” he asked. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“Oh, heavens no!” the sorceress exclaimed, laughing lightly. “You should absolutely follow your own guidance and do what feels right to you, which is hopefully to help as many people as possible. Just do it humbly, knowing that you can never truly know what’s really going on.” She paused, her smile fading. “And don’t reject anything. Embrace it all. If you try to avoid certain feelings or outcomes, you’ll fall prey to the flip side of the same misunderstanding that trapped the two of them.” She glanced at Abdul and the genie, who had finally let go of each other and were staring at them intently.

Little One took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said. “I have to admit that makes some sense. But did you have to destroy Ginger’s machine? She worked so hard on it, and it would have been so helpful to show the people in my village their true nature. Now I have no idea how to convince them of the truth of what I’ve learned.

“Ginger is already thinking about what her next invention will be,” the sorceress said, her voice a tinkling bell. “And you don’t need some silly machine to help you show people their true nature. That is your gift. Try not to cheapen it with self doubt.”

“But how?” Little One persisted, the knot in his belly too tight to let it go. “How can I convince others of who they really are?”

The sorceress laughed again. “I hope you’ve learned today that you cannot convince anyone of anything that they don’t already believe is true.” She paused, her eyes intent on his. “But as to how you can help them remember who they are, I do not know. You will, however, when the time is right. That I can promise.”

Little One looked around. Abdul and the genie were helping each other up and brushing themselves off. Ginger was staring at the sorceress with wide eyes, a smile playing at her lips. The sorceress was looking at him expectantly.

“I hope so,” he said. “I hope I figure it out. But I’m heading back to my village after this, and though I’ve learned so much, in some ways I still feel as lost as when I left.”

The gentle smile returned to the sorceress’ face. “You can only be lost if you don’t know the way home,” she said softly.

The words sounded vaguely familiar, and for a split second, Little One could have sworn that her hair turned white and her dress became a shawl the color of shadows. Before he could be sure, though, she was a beautiful young woman once again.

Little One looked at her in amazement, wondering at how it was possible that one person could be so complex. Perhaps we all are, he thought, exchanging meaningful looks with Ginger, Abdul, and the genie, seeing for the first time an infinite depth in their eyes. He suddenly realized how lucky he would be if the world continued to surprise him as much as the sorceress had.

“I…I think I understand,” he murmured after a long pause, and was startled to realize that this time it was true.


Click here to read the next story in the series.


Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

The Real Reason You Can’t Do What Others Can

If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I can’t do what most other people can.

When my sister tells me her weekend plans, for example, I feel exhausted just hearing them all. She manages them quite successfully, whereas I personally find that when I commit to more than one activity per weekend in addition to the regular cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping, I end up feeling overwhelmed and cranky.

The list goes on:

  • I can’t work ten-hour days. In fact, most days my brain stops working whether I do or not after a mere six.
  • I work slowly, and on one thing at a time. (Though I can multitask, I don’t enjoy it, and things never turn out very well when I do.)
  • I perform much better if I have downtime in the late afternoon—preferably a nap—and if I don’t get it a couple days in a row, things go downhill quite quickly.
  • I get abnormally stressed in crowds. Something about having so many people crammed into a small amount of space makes me extremely uncomfortable and agitated.
  • The only place I feel totally at home is in nature, and if I don’t spend time in it regularly, I literally get depressed.

I could keep going. But the point is, my preferences and needs are in such stark contrast to everything I see around me that I often feel like an alien.

A World of Limits

If I am an alien, however, I’m far from the only one.

Just last week I was talking to a client (who generously gave me permission to write about her here) who shared concerns that she wasn’t going to be able to find a job she enjoyed because she’s not adept at social media and lacks the motivation to learn. She also worries that her unwillingness to do certain kinds of work (like being an assistant to others) will keep her unemployed.

This comes, mind you, from an extremely gifted woman with terrific creative vision who is also a superb communicator, talented relationship builder, and even a skilled voice actor. Like most of us, however, it’s not her gifts that she tends to focus on, but her limits.

I’ve had other clients with similar concerns about their constraints, whether it’s an inability to stay in a well-paying but meaningless job, an unwillingness to go into an office or work standard hours, or an allergy to giving large presentations. These clients worry that their limits will keep them from finding jobs, or at least well-paying ones that they enjoy.

A Line Worth Living With

And yet we all have gifts that the world needs. One-by-one, I’ve seen my most worried clients find work that’s both enjoyable and rewarding, and that honors their limitations.

Limitations are worth honoring, not only because pushing past them creates some pretty unpleasant consequences, but also because when we work within them, we’re more productive and perform better.

Based on what I shared about myself earlier, you might think it’s a miracle that I ever get anything done. Maybe it is. Still, I find that there’s plenty of time to do what’s needed, and when I listen to my limits, I have better sessions with my clients, my writing flows more easily, and yes, on average, I also get more done.

Lest you think this is all wishful thinking, know that studies have found that naps improve the capabilities of pilots, spending time in nature has benefits for both performance and health, multi-tasking actually makes you less efficient, and there’s lots of evidence that when we don’t overtax ourselves, we can do the same amount of work in less time.

When we see a limit from the inside, it highlights the difference between what we’re able to do and what we think others can. When looked at from outside, however, limits define and encapsulate all the areas where we do our best work. That’s incredibly valuable.

A Sign of Something More

Within the last couple of years, however, I’ve realized that our limits—along with all the things that make us different from others—point to something even more important than how to perform our best:

Our limits indicate the exact place where we can change the world for the better.

You don’t need to look at our world for long to see that it’s incredibly out of balance. I can’t begin to describe all the ways in which we’ve lost our connection to compassion, love, kindness, respect, etc., but I can tell you that each of my clients holds a piece of the puzzle that can make us whole again and restore us to harmony.

If my client from last week loved social media, she may not be so talented at creating deep and meaningful relationships that help others have a positive impact on the world. If she wanted to be an assistant, she’d have fewer opportunities to bring her unique creative vision to life. (Though social media and assisting others can be important and worthwhile tasks, they’re puzzle pieces that belong to somebody else.)

If my clients could remain in well-paying but meaningless jobs, they would never put their greatest gifts to use. If they didn’t stay true to their desires to work with flexibility, balance, and autonomy, they wouldn’t be doing their part to create a world in which these things are possible.

As for me, I’ve come to see that though the pace and scale of our culture consistently feel off to me, that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps my piece of the puzzle is to help others slow down enough to reconnect with themselves, the people around them, and the natural world. When that happens, I’ve noticed, we can’t help but make this planet a better place.

Aliens on Earth Unite

For many of us, the more different we are, the more inadequate we feel. But maybe the reverse is actually true. Perhaps the more alien we feel, the more our gifts are needed.

Imagine a bird who looks at all the humans running around below it on their long, thick, muscular legs. Perhaps it admires their ability to run fast, lift heavy objects, or simply hold their ground. This bird might look down at its own legs and feel ashamed by their spindly weakness. With such legs, it could never perform all the impressive feats it sees the humans achieving.

But, as you may already have guessed, such a bird forgets something very important. It’s built for something quite different. Its thin, unimpressive legs in combination with its extraordinary wings were designed to help it achieve the miracle of flight.

The world needs beings who can fly, who can pollinate, disperse seeds, and fertilize everywhere they go. But miraculous or not, it’s not easy having dainty legs when all the others you see around you are strong. Our brains are wired to compare. So how do we bring our gifts to the world without giving in to shame, loneliness, or frustration?

We find the places we belong.

We seek out the environments, people, and activities that bring us back to ourselves, and then we spend as much time with them as possible. Finding our true homes in the world, we go to them often to recharge our batteries and reconnect with our vitality. That way, when we go back into alien environments, we have the strength we need to continue to live in fierce fidelity with who we really are and share all the benefits that brings with the world.

In my experience, we’ll do this very imperfectly. We’ll forget our true gifts over and over again as we go back to old habits of comparing ourselves to others and trying to fit in.

This isn’t a bad thing. It just means we need to be diligent in the practices that bring us home and have lots of reminders close at hand. One of my favorite reminders is a poem by Tara Mohr, reprinted below with permission:

A You-Shaped Hole
By Tara Mohr

Sometimes the world feels inhospitable.
You feel all the ways that you and it don’t fit.
You see what’s missing, how it all could be different.

You feel as if you weren’t meant for the world, or the world wasn’t meant for you,
as if the world is “the way it is” and your discomfort with it a problem.

So you get timid. You get quiet about what you see.

But what if this?

What if you are meant
to feel the world is inhospitable, unfriendly, off-track
in just the particular ways that you do?

The world has a you-shaped hole in it.
It is missing what you see.
It lacks what you know
and so you were called into being.
To see the gap, to feel the pain of it, and to fill it.

Filling it is speaking what is missing.
Filling it is stepping into the center of the crowd, into a clearing,
and saying, here, my friends, is the future.

You don’t have to do it all, but you do have to speak it.
You have to tell your slice of the truth.
You do have to walk toward it with your choices, with your own being.

Then allies and energies will come to you like fireflies swirling around a light.

The roughness of the world, the off-track-ness, the folly that you see,
these are the most precious gifts you will receive in this lifetime.

They are not here to distance you from the world,
but to guide you to your contribution to it.

The world was made with a you-shaped hole in it.
In that way you are important.
In that way you are here to make the world.
In that way you are called.

Over to You

This is a very personal topic for me—it’s something I feel strongly and have been thinking about a lot recently. If this resonates at all with you, I’d appreciate you letting me know in the comments. In what ways do you feel like an alien? When have you felt like this might be a good thing? What are the places, people, and activities that bring you home?


Bug/alien: Photo by Mister Starman on Unsplash
Bird on a post: Photo by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash

Little One and the Secret of True Nature

Following is the seventeenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.


He’d been wrong, Little One realized regretfully. Thoroughly and completely wrong.

Up until a few moments ago, he thought, his head heavy in his hands, his elbows pressing into his knees, things still could have turned around. The chaos of the afternoon could have been the dramatic precursor to a rousing victory—two victories, really, if you counted the second reason he’d returned to the City of the Children of the Serpent God—and the strategy he’d been so confident in just hours before could have proved a good one.

It was now abundantly clear that it hadn’t, though he still wasn’t sure exactly where he’d gone wrong. The children in the village he’d come across had asked for his help. He couldn’t just let them starve while an evil demon held their parents captive with a spell, forcing them to help him take over the world at the expense of their homes and families.

Little One had tried and failed to help the children on his own. And it was the Serpent God himself who told him that alone he was powerless—what else could that have meant except that he was supposed to ask for help?

Besides, his siblings—the Serpent God’s other children—had been slow to see the truth in the message he delivered from their father—that all beings are made of light and that their role as the god’s children was to remind everyone of that fact. It was only logical that inviting his siblings to help him defeat the demon would both save the village and allow them to experience the truth of their father’s message for themselves.

But that’s not how things had turned out. Not at all.

Perhaps he should have known his plan was flawed when his siblings didn’t respond to his request with the warmth and enthusiasm that he’d envisioned. Instead, they’d looked at him coldly or not at all. One had asked if there were any princesses involved, and another why he was asking for help if there weren’t even any dragons on the loose. Nobody had expressed any interest in helping, in fact, until he told them how big and powerful the demon was, and how many other heroes had failed to stop him.

That provoked enough interest that the siblings agreed to send a small group of gifted brethren with him back to the village. Little One was happy that at least they’d given him some of the brothers and sisters most talented at flying, fighting, and becoming invisible. There was even one who could make fire sprout out of his palms.

Yet it was probably another bad sign that when Little One began to strategize with these siblings, they started coming up with plans for how to burn down the demon’s headquarters along with everything inside it.

“No, we can’t burn it down,” Little One explained patiently. “The adults from the village are inside, and they’re refusing to leave.”

One of his brothers whose name he’d learned on an earlier visit didn’t understand. “I thought you said the adults were helping the demon,” Corbett said. “You said it was the children we’re there to save.”

Little One sighed and tried not to let their earlier interaction make him impatient. Part of his goal was to help them see that they were made of light, after all; someone with such an important message surely shouldn’t display irritation. “Yes, that’s true,” he agreed, “but the demon has some sort of spell on the adults, at least I think he does, and the children need their parents.” He paused, hearing the edginess in his voice. “Maybe I didn’t explain how young the children are,” he added more kindly.

Corbett had simply nodded, looking more irritated than grateful.

In the end, they settled on a plan to sneak into the headquarters and try to neutralize the demon, thus freeing the adults from his spell. Nobody argued when Little One made it clear that the ideal outcome was to interrupt the demon’s power over the people, not kill him outright, but he wasn’t sure how much he’d actually persuaded his siblings and to what degree they were simply humoring him.

Their entrance into the headquarters, which was the largest building he’d ever seen and had a chimney that belched dark, gray smoke out into the air above it, actually went more smoothly than he’d imagined. He supposed he owed that to his siblings’ superpowers.

The ones who could fly were able to carry the others to the back side of the building to avoid detection, a precaution they’d decided on even though Little One wasn’t sure there was even anyone watching the road. The invisible ones were then able to sneak in the door without being noticed. The rest of them waited for the agreed-upon signal, which came as a bird call letting them know that they’d surrounded the demon.

He barged in with the other remaining siblings to do what he could to overcome the demon. They hadn’t known what it would take, so in addition to the fire-maker, they’d brought several who had superpowers that could be used in a fight, including two brothers and a sister from the same family who were nearly twice as tall as the rest of them, had bulging muscles, and apparently knew how to use them.

The demon’s response to all this was perhaps another indicator that things weren’t going to turn out as planned. Despite being surrounded by a circle of rather determined-looking children of the Serpent God, including three near-giants, the demon didn’t express any sign of fear or even anger. Instead, he just ran a hand through his thinning hair and looked at them with an understated curiosity as if they were a species of bird he’d never seen before. When he saw Little One, he smiled and nodded to himself.

“I had a feeling I hadn’t seen the last of you,” he said almost jovially.

Little One grunted. “We’re here to free these people from your spell,” he called out in response. “If you let them go now, no harm will come to you.”

The demon looked around at the parents, many of whom had stopped to see what was going on, but most of whom still appeared to be trying to peer at their papers at the same time. Little One wondered what could be on those papers that was so important. “I told you before,” the demon said, his voice ice, “they are all free to leave whenever they want.”

Little One heard a murmur go up in the siblings surrounding the demon. “Yes, you say that,” he answered quickly, and more loudly, “but I know they’re under your spell. I cannot believe these parents would leave their children to starve if you were not bewitching them somehow.”

The demon laughed, his thick belly shaking with the effort. “Bewitching, eh? Is that what you call it? I prefer the terms leading, influencing, or perhaps motivating, but whatever you call it, I’m just giving them the opportunity to fulfill their desires. Believe it or not, they are free to go at any time.”

Now Little One knew the demon was lying. There was no way anyone would desire to live in an environment like this one, especially not when he had a family waiting for him at home. “So you will not set them free from whatever trance you’ve forced upon them?” he asked, his voice nearly a growl.

“You are not hearing me, boy. There is no trance.” The demon’s eyes flashed red in the dim light of the headquarters.

“Then I’m afraid we have no choice but to make you do it. Brothers, sisters,” Little One said, looking around him at as many siblings as he could as he pronounced the agreed-upon words, “neutralize him!”

Little One realized in retrospect that it wasn’t the most powerful word choice. Still, it didn’t seem likely that that alone could have caused the disaster that followed.

The three large siblings had moved forward to try to grab the demon, but in the exact moment when their hands should have touched his skin, he disappeared. He reappeared a moment later outside the circle of siblings, cackling maniacally. Fortunately, one of the ones who stood nearest to him was the fire-maker, and he grabbed the demon’s wrist before he could slip away. Unfortunately, what looked like a thin stream of red fire immediately shot out of the demon’s eyes and scorched the brother’s hand, causing him to drop the wrist as the demon disappeared once again.

He reappeared across the room. Little One saw Sebastian, the first son of the Serpent God he’d ever met, try to surprise the demon from above and behind. It didn’t work. Just as Sebastian was about to approach him, the demon simply smiled and stuck a hand in the air without looking, grabbing him around the throat. With superhuman strength, he flung the brother across the room, where he landed with a loud thud against the stone wall.

That’s when all the brothers and sisters went after the demon at once. One by one he burned them, threw them, or evaded them, and all the while the adults of the village simply looked on with their glazed-over eyes, occasionally ducking to get out of the way of a flung sibling, but mostly keeping their eyes on their papers and walking about muttering to themselves about distractions and lost productivity.

Just when Little One thought that it couldn’t get any worse, it did. His siblings weren’t used to losing, but it was becoming clear that their efforts weren’t doing anything to neutralize, let alone vanquish, the demon. Little One watched in horror as Corbett, his face twisted with rage, stood up from where the demon had just thrown him and immediately turned towards the nearest village adult. Before Little One could do anything to intervene, his brother had wrapped his arms around the man, taken off into the air, and disappeared with him out the main door.

As soon as the other siblings saw what Corbett had done, they began to do the same.

Little One tried to yell at them to stop, but the roar of the fighting swallowed his words. Twice when he tried to physically intervene he was thrown to the ground. By the time he was on his feet again the second time, all of his siblings had disappeared with about half of the adults in the headquarters. The remaining adults sat hunkered in the corners, looking around wild-eyed and terrified, clutching their precious papers to their chests. The demon, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen.

Little One made his way through the headquarters and back out into the light of day. In the reddish light of the late afternoon sun, a disturbing scene met his eyes. The village adults were scattered over the open ground in front of the headquarters, struggling to free themselves or crawl back towards the door. His siblings were having none of it; they were busy tying invisible bonds around the adults, sitting on their chests so they could not move, or in one or two cases, knocking them unconscious with blows to the back of the head.

Once again Little One tried to intervene, to no avail. His siblings either pretended not to hear him as they subdued the adults or told him to go back to the village to take his place with the children if he wasn’t up to the task of rescue. Not knowing what else to do, Little One had made his way to a rock outcropping at the edge of the forest overlooking the clearing and sat down to try to think things through.

That was when he realized that he’d been wrong, that things weren’t going to turn around after all. But after reviewing the events that led to the disaster deepening itself in front of his eyes, he still wasn’t sure where his mistakes had begun, or what, more importantly, he could do about them now.

His body felt incredibly heavy, like it would take more strength than he had to move. His head hurt, and his stomach felt as if it was somewhere near his ankles. He wanted to cry. He wanted to run. He wanted to scream. He was gathering his energy to walk back down to the field and try to reason with his siblings once again when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

When he turned around, he very nearly cried, ran, and screamed all at once.

Ginger stood in front of him, a sympathetic smile on her face that told him she understood exactly what he was feeling. She shook her head and started to say something, but before she got any words out, Little One threw his arms around her and held her tight, breathing in her familiar scent.

He held her for a long time, not wanting to let her go. When he finally did, it was reluctantly, and he held on to one of her hands in his own, unwilling to lose contact completely.

She looked up at him and smiled. “Good to see you again, Little One,” she said, tucking a stray piece of hair behind his ear with her other hand.

“You have no idea how good it is to see you,” he answered, squeezing her hand, unsure of where to begin to catch up on what had happened since they’d seen each other last.

“Oh, I think I have some idea,” Ginger laughed, squeezing his hand in return. Her smile faded as she glanced behind him and took in the scene in front of the headquarters. “That’s a fine mess, isn’t it?” she asked as sounds of their siblings’ struggles floated up the hill.

Little One dropped her hand. “I made a big mistake, Ginger,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t even know what it was exactly, but I know it was a big one. And I have no idea what to do about it now.”

Ginger put her hand on his shoulder. “Oh, Little One,” she said. “This isn’t your fault.” She was smiling softly again. “This is what happens any time our siblings get it in their head that somebody needs saving.”

“But I brought them here, Ginger. I told them about the village, and the demon, and the spell…”

“I know,” Ginger said quietly. “I spoke with the children in the village. You were doing what you thought best. It was a good plan. You just don’t know our siblings the way I do. They’re good people, but they always get a little…carried away in situations like this. They forget themselves and the real purpose of their efforts. It’s why I started making this in the first place,” she said, squatting down to pick up what looked like a large metal box with a cone on top and another one coming out the side.

“Is that your invention?” Little One asked breathlessly. “The one you were working on when I first met you?”

“Yes,” Ginger said, nodding. “I went back to get it to help the Serpent God. As you well know, he didn’t need it anymore by the time I got there. But he told me you might, and sent me back here to see if it could help.”

“What is it?” Little One asked. It didn’t look like anything he’d ever seen before.

“Mostly it’s just a box for refracting and reflecting light,” Ginger explained, turning the strange contraption over in her hands. “The important piece is here.” She pointed to the spot where the cone on the side attached to the box. “This is the lens of truth.”

“The lens of truth,” Little one repeated, turning the words over in his mouth. “What does it do?”

“It filters out the most illusory aspects of our manifestation,” she answered.

Little One shook his head. “What does that mean?” he asked.

Ginger laughed. “It shows our true nature,” she said as if it were the simplest thing in the world. “In a way that anyone can see.”

Little One thought about this as he took in the scene below. Most of the adults had been tied up or otherwise incapacitated and rounded up into a small circle. Some of his siblings were standing guard over the circle while others huddled in groups of twos and threes heatedly discussing what to do with their prisoners. Little One could see a few said prisoners still struggling with their bonds, and a few more were attempting to scoot themselves awkwardly back towards the headquarters when their captors weren’t looking. As he watched their vain efforts, he finally understood.

“So you’re going to reveal to the adults of the village the true nature of the demon,” he said, turning back to Ginger, “to show them how evil he is and break whatever spell he’s cast upon them.”

Ginger looked at him for a moment with smiling eyes. “Not exactly,” she said after a moment and hoisted the machine onto her shoulders.

Little One was confused. “The demon disappeared a little while ago, Ginger. There’s nobody down there right now who needs to be exposed.”

The only answer Ginger gave was a grunt as she shifted the machine on her shoulder, nearly dropping it as it swung wildly around to point at the closest group of conferring siblings.

Little One started to reach out and help her reposition it towards the headquarters when suddenly the sunlight caught the top cone and a bright, white light began to pour out of the cone on the side. He watched as the light washed over his siblings, making the lines of their bodies hazy wherever it passed. Where their forms blurred, a beautiful golden light began to appear. It pulsed outward in waves as if pushed by a beating heart, and as it did, it began to change colors, from gold to orange to red to purple then blue and green and back to gold. The light was so pure, so rich, so beautiful, that Little One didn’t think he could look away even if he wanted to.

“Wow, that’s…” he started to say to Ginger before realizing there was no word to describe what he was seeing.

Slowly Ginger moved the machine so that its light fell upon more groups of siblings. As she did, all sound ceased. In the ensuing silence, Little One heard a faint thumping sound like that of a heart, but whether it was his or somebody else’s, he wasn’t sure. The light of his siblings seemed to dance to the sound, which vibrated within him, waking every last corner of his being.

When the light reached the first adult from the village, Little One turned to look at Ginger with a question in his eyes, but her attention was wholly on where her machine was pointed. Where the light passed over the villagers, it still transformed them into a multi-colored incandescence, but the shades were less intense, and instead of pouring out in waves, they seemed to organize themselves into shapes.

It was hard to make them out at first, but eventually the forms of large animals began to emerge, some of them recognizable as wolves, squirrels, turtles, boars, birds, and the like, while others were fantastic creatures that Little One had never seen before. Recognizable or not, they were there only for a moment; when he looked at them directly they would disappear into a mist of beautiful colors, but out of the corner of his eyes there was no mistaking the various forms.

After what felt like hours, when there were no more forms to see and the colored light had faded from the field, Little One continued to stare as if in a trance. He longed for the light to reappear, could feel an ache for it in the back of his chest. It had all felt so vibrant, so warm and alive. Now everything felt dull and cold, as if he were experiencing it through a thick cloth.

He was beginning to wonder if it was possible to experience everything that way all the time when he heard a grunt and turned back to look at Ginger just in time to see the machine slip from her shoulder and her knees go out from under her. Without thinking, he grabbed the machine with one hand and slipped the other around her back, keeping her on her feet.

“Thank you,” she murmured, her whole body leaning on him. “I’m still trying to find a better energy source for the machine. As it is, it’s pretty exhausting.”

“It’s amazing is what it is,” Little One whispered. “Shall we go see what it’s done?” Ginger nodded.

As they made their careful way down the hill, Little One saw that some people were frozen, still staring at each other as though the lights might reappear at any moment. Others, however, were beginning to stir. Among his siblings, there were several who were walking around untying the bonds of the villagers. Several more were bending over and helping them to their feet, shrugging their shoulders and smiling apologetically.

For their part, the villagers were dusting themselves off and reaching out hands of gratitude. Little One couldn’t hear what they were saying, but from their gestures and expressions he felt sure it was some word of thanks. Several were looking over their shoulders at the headquarters regretfully, while others had taken a few steps back up the road towards the village and their children.

As they got closer, Little One heard one thanking Corbett for saving his life. “I don’t know what came over me,” he said sadly, “but all I could think about was serving that evil demon and helping him take over the world. Nothing else seemed to matter nearly so much. But thanks to your strength and courage, I seem to be seeing things more clearly now, and can return to my children while they are still well. For that I will be eternally grateful.”

“The honor is mine,” Corbett said in return. “You have shown me the beauty and power of love, which I see in your eyes even now when you speak of your children. For that I will be eternally grateful.”

Little One turned to Ginger, who was bearing more of her own weight now, and smiled. “You did it,” he said softly. “You and your lens of truth did all of this.”

She opened her mouth to speak when suddenly a loud noise crashed through the field. It  too vibrated, but with much more violence and turmoil than the light.

“My people,” a deafening voice boomed. “You do not want to return to your village. That is but weakness flowing back into your veins. If you go back, all that we have worked for will be destroyed. Come with me now and you will find the rewards you were promised.”

Little One got ready to argue, but nobody moved a muscle. He looked around quickly for the source of the voice but didn’t see the demon anywhere until Ginger elbowed him in the ribs and pointed to a stocky form half-crouched behind one of the boulders at the top of the hill where she’d found him.

When the demon spoke again, his voice had grown so loud that Little One felt as if it were coming from inside his own head. “If you go back now,” he bellowed, “you will lose everything—your crops, your homes, your children—all will whither and die before your eyes. We live in a perilous land, and only I can offer you true safety and shelter from the storm. Come with me back to the headquarters and you need not fear any danger.”

Some of the villagers’ eyes grew wide as their shoulders slumped; they eyed the headquarters nervously and looked ready to head there, if reluctantly. Others glowered at the demon, their hands forming fists at their sides. Some even took a step or two towards him, looking ready to use their fists however they could.

Ginger tugged urgently at Little One’s sleeve. “The machine, brother,” she whispered. “There’s one person who still needs to see his true nature.”

Little One started to give it to her, then hesitated. “What good will it do?” he asked. “The people already know that he’s evil. Besides, you’re too tired to use it again. Let me go and deal with the demon while you rest and regain your strength.”

Ginger shook her head. “Not me,” she said, reaching over to guide the machine onto his shoulder. “You.” She angled the cone towards the demon.

“I don’t know how this works, Ginger!” Little One said desperately. “What if I do it wrong?”

Ginger smiled weakly. “There’s no way to do it wrong, Little One. Just connect with your own inner light and see what appears. It helps to be curious, but that’s really it. I know you can do it,” she added, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Trust me, okay?”

Little One took a deep breath, allowing the air and Ginger’s confidence to calm him. He brought his attention to his belly and chest. At first he was only aware of what felt like thousands of buzzing horseflies amid muscles contracted with fear. As he continued to breathe, the contraction lessened, and eventually the flies quieted as well. What remained was a feeling of weight and solidity, as if his belly were carved of stone. As he focused on that, he began to feel the stirrings of a warm, golden energy within him. He waited as it traveled from his core up into his throat and head and out into his arms and legs. Finally he could feel its warmth flowing throughout his entire body, pulsing with his heartbeat.

“Okay,” he said quietly. “Let’s do this.” He shifted the machine on his shoulder until the top cone caught the rays of the setting sun. Turning back towards the hill, he watched as bright, white light shot out of the other cone towards the demon half-hidden behind the rock.

At first nothing happened. The demon looked the same—stout, balding, with gleaming red eyes—only easier to see in the brighter light. I knew it, Little One thought, either this is the demon’s true nature, or I’ve found a way to do this wrong. He looked at Ginger, who was staring inquisitively at the demon, and remembered her advice to get curious. He let go of the thought and returned his attention to the demon, wondering what he’d see.

Almost immediately the demon’s form disappeared. It rematerialized again so quickly that Little One wasn’t sure if he’d made it up. Blinking, he stared harder. After a few moments the demon again vanished, this time taking longer to reappear. The next time it happened, the demon looked just slightly smaller when he returned than he had when he’d left. It happened again and again until Little One finally realized with a gasp that the demon was not only growing smaller, but younger as well. Each time he rematerialized, he looked less like a middle-aged man and more like a young adult.

Then finally, after a few minutes of flickering in and out, the demon reappeared and remained visible. By then he looked like a skinny three-year-old with wild hair sticking out from his head at odd angles. His face was twisted into a painful expression, and it took Little One a minute to register that his eyes were no longer red and were in fact overflowing with tears.

The demon looked for all the world like a little boy crying for his mother.

Little One almost wanted to run and gather him in his arms so he could tell the demon that everything would be okay. As he glanced around, he realized that he wasn’t the only one; several of his siblings and most of the village adults had concerned expressions on their faces, and one or two were actually reaching out with open arms stretched wide towards the crying demon.

As Little One tried to make sense of this, he felt Ginger touch his shoulder. “Well done,” she whispered softly. “I knew you could do it.”

Little One looked back at Ginger with another question in his eyes, but she just smiled and turned towards the villagers. “As you can see,” she said, her voice carrying like a bell, “the demon has no power over you which you do not give him. His words have no force of prophecy; they are simply the cries of a frightened and hurting child. You are all free to go. There is nothing he can do to harm you, and nothing you need do to stay him.”

As the adults looked from Ginger to the demon and around at one another, Little One realized it was true. Not only were the adults clearly more powerful and in control of themselves than the demon, but they were also nearly twice his size.

The villagers seemed to be realizing the same thing. Broad smiles broke out on their faces as they said brief words to the siblings and began congregating on the road. The sound of laughter and singing floated to Little One’s ears. Several of the villagers came to thank Ginger for her invention and to shake Little One’s hand, but before long they were all heading back on the road towards the village where their homes, fields, and children awaited them.

Little One suddenly realized how tired he was and let the machine fall softly to the ground. Just as he did he saw a woman cresting the top of the hill stop walking. She looked anxiously ahead towards the village, then down at the demon and frowned. The demon had returned to his previous form, a stout, middle-aged man with glowing eyes.

Little One watched apprehensively, worried that the woman might either return for revenge or else fall under the demon’s spell once again now that he was back to his original appearance. He started to heft Ginger’s invention back up onto his shoulder when he felt Ginger’s hand on his arm. He looked at her, saw her shake her head just slightly while still eyeing the demon, then looked back up at the woman on the hill.

With a set jaw and a firm gaze, the villager pivoted on her foot and marched down to the rock where the demon looked as if he were trying to fry her with his beady red eyes. Then, when she reached out a trembling hand towards the demon, the strangest thing happened.

The demon once again shrank and took on the appearance of a young child. The woman’s eyes grew wide and even the demon gave a start as he looked down at his small body and began to cry once again. Immediately the villager swooped him up in her arms, held him close to her chest, and began stroking his wild hair softly with her hand. Little One thought he heard her murmuring soothingly in the demon’s ear, but he couldn’t be sure.

When he looked back over at Ginger, Little one saw that she was laughing.

“Sometimes if enough people see our true nature,” she explained, “we can’t help but see it as well. Then the illusion loses its power and the truth becomes more…apparent.”

Little One imagined the woman taking the demon into her home and giving him the love and acceptance he perhaps never had as a child. He wasn’t sure if demons were ever children or even had mothers, but he supposed that if they didn’t, that could explain why they were so horrible. As he visualized the demon slowly maturing, learning the village’s customs and contributing to its well-being, a smile bloomed on his face.

It deepened when he saw Ginger’s own grin, nearly the size of his own. It grew bigger and bigger, in fact, the closer he and his siblings got to the village, and by the time they arrived and saw the children laughing and hugging and swinging their parents around by the arms, he thought it might break his face. He didn’t stop, though. His smile didn’t disappear until he fell asleep hours later, and even then a hint of it remained.


Click here to read the next story in the series.


Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Are You Afraid to Fail? If So, There’s Something You Should Know.

afraid to fail rabbit

“Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another stepping stone to greatness.”
–Oprah Winfrey

We human beings have a complicated relationship with failure. We almost instinctively fear it at the same time that we acknowledge its benefits. We know from platitudes and after-school specials that we have to be willing to fail if we want to succeed, yet the vast majority of us still go out of our way to avoid it.

Knowing that failure is part of the game is one thing; actually being willing to do it is another. Or maybe it’s that it’s okay for other people to fail, people like Oprah Winfrey who are now successful beyond their wildest dreams, but it’s not okay for us.

It’s almost like failure is a cat and we’re the mouse. Other people keep telling us that it’s friendly, but all we see are its sharp claws and jagged teeth as it eyes us hungrily from the corner.

afraid to fail cat

We do need to stop fearing failure if we’re going to be willing to step into the risks necessary to change careers or otherwise realize our dreams. But how can we befriend something that looks like it’s thinking we’d make a delicious mid-afternoon snack?

Failure: The Enigma

To do this, we first need to question our assumption that we know what failure is.

When I ask members of my Pathfinders Group Coaching program what images, words, or associations come up for them when I say the word failure, I get responses such as incompetence, shame, broken, lonely, bewildered, lost, and permanent. They share how it often feels less like “This thing I was working on failed” and more like “I am a failure”.

But when I ask these same people targeted questions about the actual results of a specific failure they’ve experienced, I get entirely different answers. Words like helpful, necessary, and freeing start to come to mind.

Here’s how you can see this phenomenon for yourself:

  1. Recall 2-3 times in your past where you feel like you failed. Choose the one that has the most emotional charge for you.
  2. Channeling your Inner Critic, write down the worst things this failure could say about you. Don’t hold back and include all your worst judgments.
  3. Now write down all the bad things that actually happened as a result of this failure. It’s important that you stick to verifiable facts (such as, “I invested $10,000 and never got it back”) and not assumptions (like, “Everyone thought I was a loser” or “I lost my chance to land my dream job”).
  4. Finally, write down all the good things that came of it. For example, what did you learn? What did you gain from your efforts? What new qualities or skills did you hone? What other possibilities did you discover as a result of your failure?
  5. Considering everything you wrote, what are some more accurate statements about what failure is or what it means to fail?

Failure: The Experience

You can read a beautiful example of one person’s answers to these questions on the blog of a former Pathfinders Group Coaching participant.

Here’s my own true-life example:

When I ran my first online course, I spent nearly 5 months planning, creating, and launching it. I poured my heart and soul into the program, invested a lot of time and money in its development, and very publicly invited everyone and their second cousin to take part.

Sales were…disappointing, to say the least. I got less than a quarter of the number I needed to recoup my financial investment, let alone what would have made me a profit or paid for the hundreds of hours I’d devoted to the project.

I felt humiliated. My Inner Critic was yelling at me that nobody wanted what I had to offer, and that I had been foolish to think they would. It went on to tell me that this was proof that I was less capable than everyone else, that I made terrible decisions, and that I would never be successful or run the kind of business that I wanted to.

My list of verifiable negative outcomes, however, was surprisingly short. I invested thousands of dollars without seeing a return (yet). Everything else, including the sense that I had wasted my time, was only an assumption.

And when it came time to list the positive outcomes—well, it was far longer than I expected:

  • I learned how to create, run, and market an online course.
  • I grew past my fear of sharing more of myself more visibly with the world.
  • I got all my content in one place, which helped me see how much I had and generated ideas for other ways to use it.
  • I now had a product I can continue to offer in the future with minimal additional effort.
  • Perhaps most importantly, I learned that I didn’t really enjoy leading a live online course and prefer offerings that allow me to get to know people better individually and go deeper with them on their journeys.

It wasn’t painless; failing to meet my goals was disappointing, and I didn’t have as much money as I’d hoped. But I still had options, I managed to adjust, and the disappointment didn’t last forever.

Failure: The Impact

There’s a Zen story  about a farmer whose crops all grow big during a particularly rainy season. His friends in the tea house tell him how lucky he is. He just nods and says, “Perhaps.”

The plush crops then attract a herd of wild horses, which trample his fields and ruin his harvest. In the tea house, his friends all commiserate with him and tell him how unlucky he is. He just nods and says, “Perhaps.”

Shortly thereafter the farmer’s son captures one of the wild horses and tames him. The stallion is worth more than several years’ harvest. The farmer’s friends all tell him over tea how lucky he is. He just nods and says, “Perhaps.”

The next day the stallion kicks the farmer’s son, debilitating him. The farmer’s friends express their sorrow and tell him how unlucky he is. The farmer just nods and says, “Perhaps.”

A little while later the army comes through the town, conscripting all the able-bodied men and taking them to war. The farmer’s son doesn’t have to go, as he is no longer able-bodied. The farmer’s friends all tell him how lucky he is. You already know how the farmer responds.

Though the story is about events outside of the farmer’s control, it has much to say about failure. In any given moment we may like or not like where we are, but no situation is final. Everything changes, in ways we cannot predict.

In other words, it’s impossible to ever know the true impact of failure.

Failure: The Benefits

In 2011, Harvard Business Review dedicated an entire issue to the topic of failure. One of my favorite articles from that issue defines a spectrum of reasons for failure that stretch from blameworthy on the one hand to praiseworthy on the other.

Blameworthy failures come from “preventable failures in predictable conditions.” These are usually caused by deviations from routine and well-defined operations (like in a factory).

Less blameworthy are the “unavoidable failures in complex systems.” These happen where there is a lot of uncertainty at work; in other words where “a particular combination of needs, people, and problems may have never occurred before.”

Praiseworthy are the “intelligent failures at the frontier.” These are experiments conducted to establish the viability of an idea or design, or to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility.

When you think about it, almost anything we do to answer our calling involves uncertainty; it’s never been done before by us in the exact way we mean to do it. Every time we make a change or step into something new, we’re conducting an experiment. All failures in this field, by Harvard’s definition, are not just inevitable—they’re beneficial. They help us find out what’s possible and discover the best ways to realize our intentions, regardless of what limits we run into.

Failure: The Reality

If you don’t already have your own definition of failure, I recommend you do the exercise above and create one.

For my part, I’ve come to see failure as nothing more than things not going according to plan. It’s the discovery of limits so we can find ways to work within them. Or, as a Pathfinders participant put it, it’s simply stepping onto a new path tomorrow.

When we see past the jaws and claws to what failure really is, we quickly realize that what we’ve spent so much time and energy fearing isn’t just unlikely; it’s impossible.

Last Chance to Join Pathfinders Group Coaching to Find Your Calling

Pathfinders Group Coaching is one of my favorite programs because I get to coach amazing people while witnessing how the feedback and love of their peers helps them rediscover their confidence, clarify what they most want, and take big steps towards making that a reality. Things that seemed impossible become probable with a powerful community to help them out and cheer them on.

I’m super excited to get started with a new Pathfinders Group Coaching cohort in just a few days. We have only 3 spots left, and I’d love to find someone who feels they’re meant to do something more than they are now but aren’t yet totally sure what that is or how to do it to join us.

If that might be you, then click here to schedule a brief, no-obligation call so we can discuss your needs, answer your questions, and explore whether Pathfinders is a fit for you. This is the last call for this cohort, and I don’t know when I’ll be offering this program again.

I would love to help you make 2018 the year you find your calling and start doing work you love.

Over to You

What benefits have you found in failure? I’d love to know, and I’m pretty sure everyone else would too. Please share in the comments below.

afraid to fail cat tongue

Rabbit photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash
First cat photo by Shubhankar Sharma on Unsplash
Second cat photo by Shlok Wadhwana on Unsplash

Little One and the Two Failures (Or, the Secret to Being Powerful and Powerless at the Same Time)

Following is the sixteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.


The second time Little One found himself in front of the gate to the City of the Children of the Serpent God, his mood was only slightly less ebullient than the first.

After all, he had just saved his father, one of the most powerful gods that existed, pretty much single-handedly. He had subsequently learned how the world began, discovered who he really was, and found his life’s purpose. Perhaps even more exciting, he had tried pancakes for the first time.

As he watched the black and brown metal snakes of the gate writhe above him, he recalled his father’s parting words.

“Do not thank me too much,” the Serpent God had warned when he expressed his gratitude yet again. “I have real reason to be grateful; you brought me back to myself. But all I have done for you is given you knowledge.”

Little One had wrinkled his nose in disbelief. “But isn’t knowledge power?” he asked. He couldn’t remember who had said it first, but he was certain he’d heard the elders in his village repeat the phrase often enough.

His father shook his giant, serpentine head. “Do not misunderstand me: knowledge is valuable and quite necessary. It is a very good first step. But it is not, by itself, enough.”

Little One just looked at his father.

“Knowing something does not change anything,” the god continued in his low rumble. “You must wrestle with the subject of your knowledge, experience it, act on it, defeat it and be defeated by it over and over again for anything to shift.”

Little One nodded, though in truth he didn’t understand. “I see,” he lied. “But surely this knowledge can help others if I share it with them?”

The Serpent God shook his head again, then nodded, then shook until his enormous head looked like it might roll off of his neck and onto the white tiled floor. “Yes and no,” he said as he cringed and massaged what appeared to be a crick in his neck. “The knowledge is helpful, but you can’t just tell others about it. It won’t mean anything to them until they experience it for themselves. You only understood because you’d already felt the truth of it.”

“I see,” Little One lied again. “And how do I help them experience it for themselves?”

His father laughed. “You already know that,” he said so confidently that Little One was afraid to suggest otherwise. “Now, are you ready to go?”

Little One nodded and picked up his backpack, which weighed more than it had when he’d put it down. “Whenever you’re ready,” he said, smiling. He was excited to be teleported for the second time in his life, this time willingly.

When he looked up, he saw that the god was looking at him strangely. “I forgot to say one last thing,” his father rumbled, frowning now. “It is a danger I have seen often when humans first learn who they really are.” He seemed unsure for the first time. “Just don’t forget that though you are all powerful, you alone are powerless,” he said slowly. When Little One opened his mouth, he shook his head and spoke more quickly. “No, I’m afraid I cannot say more than that. As I said, I find it never helps to explain paradoxes. This piece of advice you’ll have to figure out for yourself.”

This one, Little One thought, and all the others as well.

Still, by the time they were standing outside the iridescent walls of his father’s palace, he was smiling again. The Serpent God had seemed genuinely sad to see him go. He’d made him promise to come back and visit, and told him to bring his family with him. He’d even bent down to give Little One a hug, or the closest thing he could, being about a thousand times his size.

Then, after a few moments in which the earth beneath him had shifted uncomfortably and the forest around him blurred into swirls of color, Little One had found himself standing by himself in front of the familiar gate to the City of the Children of the Serpent God. He was eager to find out if what he was looking for was here, and, he admitted silently to himself, to share what he had learned.

This time he knew what to do. Walking through the gate as the metal snakes churned and hissed above him, he didn’t so much as glance at them before approaching a tree and pressing his hand against its trunk. As he did, the earth shifted with a groan and the top of a stairway appeared through the roots. Little One stepped onto it carefully and made his way down.

When he reached the bottom, a large, well-lit chamber opened up before him. The walls glowed with scenes of trees, mountains, and rivers laid over the stone. The images shimmered and moved as if real, so much so that Little One could almost feel the breeze that was stirring them against his own skin. The top of the chamber was blue and infinite, like the sky, but today there were no clouds gathered anywhere.

Little One looked around. After seeing a few new faces he didn’t recognize, he spotted one he did. He walked over.

“Well-met, brother!” yelled Sebastian as he approached, looking up from what he was working on at the table. “Long time no see!” He spoke loudly even though by that point Little One was close enough to reach out and touch him on the shoulder.

“Hi, Sebastian,” said Little One. He was too excited to waste time with niceties. “Has Ginger been here recently?”

Sebastian’s smile turned to a concerned expression. “Yeah, brother, she was here not long ago. She came back to pick up her invention. We asked her what was going on, where you were, what she needed it for…but she said she didn’t have time to explain. She told us she would tell us everything later, said she had something very important to do first. She didn’t even stay for dinner.”

Little One was vaguely aware that he should have been frustrated, but all he could feel was pleasure at having been right. When the Serpent God had offered to teleport him home, he’d politely declined, saying he wanted to find Ginger first. His father’s powers were still recovering from his imprisonment, so unfortunately the god couldn’t tell him where she was. More fortunately, a theory of his own had already begun to crystallize in Little One’s mind.

He’d first thought about it when his father told him he’d had a conversation with someone before Little One returned back to the palace to save him. Little One knew it hadn’t been with him. Then he recalled that during his first visit to the palace, there was a trail through the dust on the floor that he’d originally thought had been made by his father’s captor. Only there was no captor; his father had been in the palace the entire time.

Together these two clues led Little One to deduce that Ginger had managed to make it into the palace before he had. He knew she wouldn’t leave without doing something to help the Serpent God, however, and he was admittedly stumped for a moment until he remembered her invention. He still didn’t know what it did, but she had finished it just before they left the City of the Children of the Serpent God. He concluded that she must have gone back there to pick up her invention so she could return with it to the palace and help their father.

Warm satisfaction bubbled up in his belly as he realized that he’d been right. He felt so good that before he knew it, he’d blurted out a question he hadn’t meant to ask.

“Have you ever met the Serpent God in person?” he asked in a voice like a bell; it was so loud, in fact, that a few nearby siblings looked up from what they were doing.

Sebastian’s eyebrows shot up. “Met the Serpent God? No, man, nobody has. He disappeared a long time ago. Nobody knows where he is or how to find him.”

“I found him,” Little One said quickly.

“That’s impossible,” Sebastian said, dismissing him with a wave of his hand. “A group of older siblings tried before I got here. They were some of the strongest, smartest, most gifted children I’ve ever met. They even knew where to find the palace, but when they got there, they couldn’t get inside. Nobody was home. They tried everything to be able to enter, but nothing worked. Eventually they had to turn around and come back here. If they couldn’t do it, brother, there’s no way you”—he winced—“anybody could.”

“I did get inside,” Little One persisted. He saw out of the corner of his eye that two other siblings, a brother named Corbett that he knew from his previous tenure in the city and a woman he’d never seen before, were walking over to join them. “With Ginger. Well, at least we found it together. We got separated going in. But the Serpent God was there. He was just…unable to greet us.” He didn’t want to share the whole story right now, not with such a large audience. “But after a while we talked, and he explained everything to me.”

“Everything?” the woman who had joined them asked.

“Well, lots of things. Like, did y’all know that we’re made of light?” The woman shook her head slightly while the other two looked at him doubtfully. “Yea, we’re made of the same light that everything else is made of. Only, in these forms we feel separate, and we forget that we’re not. We forget that we’re all made of the same courage, strength, love, joy, wisdom, and all that stuff. That’s why the gods were made, to help us remember. And that’s what our job is as their children, too. We’re here to help others remember who they really are and where they come from.”

Little One smiled as he looked up at his siblings. He didn’t say it nearly as well as their father had, but he was pretty proud of how clear it was nonetheless. As he scanned their faces, however, his smile faded. All he saw were furrowed brows and stubborn frowns. “Maybe I should start at the beginning,” he went on uncertainly.

Sebastian shook his head as if waking himself up. “No, man,” he said forcefully. “You must have met an impostor. There’s no way that was really our father.”

Little One opened his mouth, but before he could respond, his sister was speaking.

“Why would our father only tell you this?” she asked, her eyes narrowed. “Why wouldn’t he come here to tell us all, if that’s really what he’s here to do?”

This time Little One didn’t even have time to open his mouth before Corbett spoke up. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said, his voice deep. “We’re here to vanquish evil, not help people remember. What’s the use of remembering? It doesn’t make any sense,” he repeated.

“Yea,” said Sebastian. “We’re here to use our superpowers to accomplish things that other humans can’t. That’s why we have them and they don’t. It’s simple.”

“Perhaps,” Little One said when there was finally a moment of silence. “But that reminds me of something else the Serpent God told me. All humans have superpowers of some kind because by now they’re all descended from one god or another.”

Sebastian whistled and rolled his eyes while the others shook their heads. “Now I know you’re confused,” Sebastian said. “Have you ever seen a normal human fly, become invisible, or invent the things that we do?” He shook his head disbelievingly.

“Confused?” Corbett said. “More like delusional. I remember you from when you were here before. You didn’t have a superpower, right? I think you got so jealous that you went off and came up with this big story to impress us and convince us that you’re better than we are.”

Anger flared up in Little One for the first time. He had been trying to stay calm, as he imagined anyone sharing this kind of knowledge should be, but the heat inside him was impossible to ignore. “I did no such thing,” he growled. “I’m telling you exactly what the Serpent God told me. And for the record, I do have a superpower.” As soon as the words left his mouth, he wanted to pull them back in.

“And what would that be?” Corbett asked, a sneer on his face.

The word sensitivity died on Little One’s lips as he imagined their responses. Perception sounded little better. “I—I don’t know yet,” he said softly, staring at the table. Harsh laughter met his ears.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” the woman said. Little One looked up and realized that she wasn’t laughing, just frowning slightly. “Why wouldn’t our father come here to tell us all of this himself?”

Little One opened his mouth, half expecting somebody to interrupt him again, but nobody did. Suddenly it was as if all words had fled his mind. After a moment, he closed his mouth again. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted.

Sebastian moved his chair back away from the table and stood up. “I’ve heard enough,” he said, looking at Corbett and the woman. “I’m going for a walk.”

Corbett didn’t give Little One another glance before spinning on his heel and stomping off as well, but the woman looked at him for a few moments with a flat expression on her face before finally sighing and turning to leave. Little One watched them go, trying desperately to think of something to say but failing to come up with a single word.

Giving a sigh of his own, he walked back up the stairs and out of the City of the Children of the Serpent God with slumped shoulders and heavy feet, nearly as discouraged as he had been excited when he’d arrived just a short time before. He began to walk dejectedly back in the direction of the Palace of the Serpent God, determined at least to succeed in finding Ginger.

By the time he came across the road, he was so caught up in trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong that he nearly missed seeing it. He walked over it lost in thought and only paused when he felt sunlight warming his back. Looking up, he was surprised to see that there were no trees overhead, which caused him to look around, which made him realize he was crossing a road.

He’d never come across a path this large before. Estimating that if he stood with arms wide it could fit three of him across its width, he wondered why it was so big and where it led.

He had just decided against walking along it for a bit to try and find out when he heard footsteps behind him. Turning around, he saw a young girl waving her arms high above her head at him.

“Hello!” she yelled, a big grin on her freckled face.

“Hello,” he said, returning her smile.

“Have you come to try and rescue us?” asked the girl, lowering her arms and coming to a stop in front of him. She sounded breathless, as if she’d been running.

“Um, no, I’m afraid I’m just passing by. But who needs rescuing, and from what?”

“My village,” she answered, her green eyes sad. “It’s just down the road. You haven’t heard? They sent me out to meet you because we thought you were here to help.”

“Who sent you out to meet me?”

“The other children, silly.” She laughed, as if it were obvious. “We’ve put out a call for help because a demon has taken over our village. Many heroes have come, but none have been able to defeat it. Oh, please do help us. You look so strong and smart. I think you might be able to do it.”

“What demon?” Little One asked, flushing despite the ice beginning to form in his belly. “And why the children? Where are your parents?”

The girl glanced back down the road behind herself impatiently. “Our parents are the ones who need rescuing. The demon has taken them hostage. He tortures and abuses them day and night. Oh, say you’ll come; then you can see for yourself.”

Little One thought for only a moment before nodding his head. “Yes,” he said. “Of course I’ll come. I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

The girl clapped her hands excitedly and beamed at him. “I knew you would!” she said happily. “Come, it isn’t far at all.”

It was true. They reached the village after walking only a short while. Soon the forest gave way to fields and then houses with small gardens began to appear next to the road. Little One saw other children, goats, and plenty of chickens, but no grown ups anywhere.

“Where are the adults?” he asked the girl.

“I told you, the demon took them hostage. They’re at the demon’s headquarters.”

Little One scowled and started to ask a question, but the girl skipped on ahead of him.

They walked like that a while longer—the girl skipping as if headed to play, Little One trudging along behind her, his feet growing heavier and his belly more tangled with every step—as they made their way through the center of the village and out to the other side. The girl didn’t slow as trees appeared beside them again and the road climbed a large hill.

When they approached the top and Little One was about to ask where they were headed, he suddenly looked up and swallowed his words. There in front of them was the largest building he had ever seen. It appeared to be made entirely of smooth, gray stone. Little One couldn’t see any windows and could make out only one large door at its base. Nearly twice as tall as the surrounding trees, it had what looked like a huge chimney jutting out of its roof that was belching dark gray smoke into the air above it.

“Come on,” the girl said, and Little One realized she hadn’t stopped skipping. He hurried to catch up to her.

When they approached the door, she finally stopped. “This is the demon’s headquarters,” she said. Little One was about to ask the girl if the demon had any defenses he needed to overcome before entering its headquarters when without warning she flung the door wide open and a terrible stench met his nose. As he covered the bottom half of his face with his arm, he steeled himself as best he could for whatever torment and abuse he might be about to see.

But as his eyes adjusted to the relative darkness within, he saw only men and women walking quickly about, speaking hurriedly with each other in small groups, and sitting in chairs staring intently at small pieces of paper.

“Is everything all right?” he asked a tall man in his middle years who was passing close by.

The man looked at him in surprise. “Of course. But if I don’t get this report done by the end of the day, it won’t be, so if you’ll excuse me…” he said, walking on.

Little One watched the adults go about their business for a few more minutes before turning to the girl. “I don’t understand,” he said. “You said they were being tortured. They look just fine to me.”

“You would say that!” the girl shouted, crossing her arms over her chest. “That’s what all the other heroes said too before they turned around and left. What a bunch of cowards! I know it doesn’t look that bad, but can’t you see what’s really going on? They work here, day and night, never coming home, never eating, never sleeping, never seeing their children. If we come here, they just ignore us or yell at us for getting in the way. They stopped working the fields months ago, and now there’s almost no food left. And they don’t even play anymore!” She was wailing now. “And the worst part is, the demon has some kind of spell on them, because when we tell them to stop, they tell us we’re being silly and say it’s for the best.”

Little One shivered. Looking more closely at a woman passing by, he realized that there was something strange about her eyes, almost as if they were glazed over and not really seeing what was in front of her.

“Okay,” he said. “That does sound strange. So where is this demon? What do I need to do to find it?”

Little One wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but it wasn’t for the girl to immediately point to a normal-looking, rather stocky man who appeared to be starting to lose his hair standing on a balcony on the second floor.

Little One cleared his throat. “Got it,” he told the girl. “I’ll be right back.”

“Be careful,” she said, her eyes wide. “He’s the most dangerous demon I’ve ever seen.”

Little One nodded and walked towards the demon. As he did, he felt his stomach begin to twist around itself once again. The closer he got, the colder he felt as well. By the time he was within shouting distance of the demon, he was nauseated, shivering, and wanted nothing more than to crawl behind a rock and hide.

I am made of light, he reminded himself, planting his feet firmly on the ground beneath the balcony.

“What exactly do you think you’re doing?” Little One called out loudly, cringing as he heard his own words and realized they sounded more like a statement of confusion than the challenge he’d imagined in his mind. I am made of light, he reminded himself again as some of the hustle and bustle around him quieted down.

The demon turned slowly from whatever he had been looking at to study Little One on the floor beneath him. “Why, isn’t it obvious?” he answered after a long silence. “I’ve persuaded these people to do my bidding so I can take over the world.” Little One realized with some discomfort that his eyes were red and shone in the dimly lit interior like flames.

“So you admit it!” Little One yelled. He wasn’t sure what the demon meant by taking over the world, but he could tell it wasn’t good by his tone.

“Of course,” roared the demon. “And why on earth wouldn’t I? There isn’t anything anybody can do about it, much less you.” He spat out the last word like it tasted bad.

Little One felt the heat of anger rising within him. He searched for a feeling of strength and golden light instead. Finally he felt it, a small but steady sense of solidity beneath the anger. “Oh, yes there is!” he shouted. “You don’t know who I am. I have powers you can’t even imagine, and I’m going to use them to help these people fight off whatever spell you’ve put on them so they can return to their village and be with their families!”

The demon threw his head back and cackled towards the ceiling. “Go for it! Be my guest! These people are free to leave whenever they want. Nobody’s forcing them to stay.”

Little One didn’t believe it. He looked around at the men and women who had for the most part stopped what they were doing to watch what was happening, though a few still had their heads bent over scraps of paper or were huddled together speaking quietly in the corners.

“People of the village!” Little One yelled, turning around so he could see everyone in the building. “There is no need to stay here helping the demon! He is using you for his own ends and does not have your well-being at heart. Do his bidding no more! Put down your work, come with me, and I will take you back to your children and your fields so you can once again attend to what matters.”

The men and women looked at him as if confused, shaking their heads and muttering, then turned to go on about their business. With flushed cheeks, he realized that a few had already done so even before he finished speaking.

Little One heard a sharp rasping noise behind him. When he turned around, he saw that the demon was laughing again. “You waste your time, son of the Serpent God.” Little One realized his mouth was open and closed it quickly. “Yes, I know exactly who you are,” the demon continued. “Which is why I’m so confident I have nothing to worry about.” With that, he turned around and walked through a doorway at the back of the balcony, disappearing from view.

Little One looked at all the people around him, but none were watching him anymore. He tried to think of something else he could say or do, but nothing came to him. Sighing heavily, he walked back to where the girl was standing in the doorway.

“I’m sorry,” he told her sadly. “I have failed yet again.”

She looked up at him, her forehead creased. “Again? Have you faced the demon before?”

“No,” Little One admitted as they stepped back out of the building and closed the door behind them, “but I’ve still managed to fail more than once today.”

As they walked back, Little One tried hard to think of a plan, but if the people weren’t willing to leave, he didn’t see how he could make them. He didn’t know enough about magic or spells to be able to do anything there, and he had a feeling the demon wouldn’t allow him to try anyway.

Having no plan and no hope for helping the children of the village, he began to doubt the confidence he had felt while talking to his father, which felt like eons ago, not earlier that morning. It was no wonder his siblings didn’t believe him or his message—he was the wrong person to be carrying it. The idea that he was made of light made him want to laugh and cry at the same time; at the moment it felt more likely that he was made of dung than anything else.

When they reached the village, the children all ran to form a circle around them, chattering excitedly and asking what had happened.

“He failed,” the girl said, her voice miserably low. The other children’s faces fell, and a few began to cry.

“You have a plan for how to go back and beat him, right?” a little boy asked, pulling his thumb out of his mouth to do so.

“Mm-hmmm,” Little One said noncommittally. The faces that stared at him looked drawn and haggard, and he remembered what the girl had said about running out of food. “I do at least have something to give y’all,” he added quickly, thinking of the few rations he still had from his previous journey. As he pulled his backpack from his shoulder, he noticed again how heavy it was, and when he opened it up, he finally realized why.

Inside his backpack, piled on top of his things, were stacks of thick pancakes his father must have slipped in when he wasn’t looking.

Little One smiled. “Have y’all ever tried pancakes?” he asked, pulling them out and handing them over.

As the children eagerly ate their breakfast with a few shouts of pleasure here and there, Little One thought of his father. He now had something else to be grateful for. It’s a good thing I have you helping me, he thought. Without you, I’d be lost.

As if in answer, his father’s words rang out in his mind: “Just remember that though you are all powerful, you alone are powerless.”

This time he heard the words differently than he had before. It wasn’t that he was the only one who was powerless, it was that without others…

Suddenly he knew what to do. He jumped up, grabbed his backpack, and handed out a few more pancakes. “Children!” he yelled. He had to say it again a few times before everyone was listening. “I know what to do! I’m going now, but I’ll be back soon. I am going to vanquish that demon, but not in the way that I thought.”

The kids gave him strange looks but continued to eat their pancakes. Little One smiled to himself and found his way back to the road.

He walked until he was standing in the same spot where he’d first seen the little girl. Turning around to be sure, then nodding to himself when he was, he stepped off the road and into the woods. Hope lightened his steps as he considered the possibility that by returning to the City of the Children of the Serpent God and asking for help from his siblings, he’d soon be able to reverse two big failures in one fell swoop.


Click here to read the next story in the series.


Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

25 Ways to Loosen Fear’s Grip

As I prepared to write this post, I realized that I’ve written a lot about fear.

Maybe it’s because most of the people I talk to mention fear as one of their biggest challenges. Whether it’s fear of failure, fear of making the wrong decision, fear of not making enough money, or fear of something else, being afraid is one of the main reasons people struggle to change careers.

Or maybe it’s because I personally face fear a lot. And by a lot, I mean all the time. And by all the time, I mean several times a day.

Or maybe it’s because fear is actually an important key to finding your calling, especially if you’re not sure where to look.

The one Evite you might prefer not to get

Stephen Pressfield has a great quote in his book The War of Art that you’ve probably heard me use before (it’s one of my favorites):

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

My own experience backs this up. Every time I’ve gotten clear about the next step towards my calling, I’ve been absolutely terrified, whether it was moving cross country, starting my own business, or sharing words I’d written with the world.

I used to be embarrassed that I felt so afraid, but then I began to notice something pretty amazing: I’m not scared all the time. I don’t feel afraid when I’m staying small, keeping quiet, or hiding inside my comfort zone. I’m only afraid when I try to do something important, grow and expand, or engage more deeply with what I care about most.

If you believe, as I do, that we’re here to learn and develop so that we can share our unique gifts with the world in increasingly powerful ways and have fun while doing it, then fear is a really good friend who points out the best way to do just that.

In other words, fear isn’t a weakness; it’s an invitation to your calling.

Showing the fear who’s boss

Fear, however, is a fickle friend. In addition to showing you what to do, it also gets in the way of actually doing it.

But that’s okay. Because you’re bigger than your fear, and it doesn’t have to rule your life. You can’t kick it out of the car, but you can pry its claw-like fingers off the wheel.

Here are 25 ways to feel the fear and do it anyway:

1. Breathe.

Sometimes fear is really just your body telling you it needs more oxygen. Breathing slowly and deeply into your belly  lets your nervous system know it can relax because all is well.

2. Come back to your body.

Unless there’s an actual threat nearby, fear is a fire stoked by our thoughts. Focusing on your body (say, by feeling your feet on the ground or the breath in your chest) removes the kindling and brings you back to the present moment.

3. Show some compassion.

Self-compassion makes fear a whole lot less overwhelming. The three steps to self-compassion are:

  1. Acknowledge the pain with sympathy and kindness;
  2. Recognize that all humans are imperfect and that in any given moment thousands of other people are feeling the same way you do; and
  3. Observe your negative thoughts and feelings with curiosity rather than judgment.

4. Give it a name.

Naming the fear and exactly what it is you’re afraid of reduces its intensity and power over you.

5. Get to the root of the fear.

When you see the fear beneath the fear, you often find that what you’re most afraid of is extremely unlikely, not truly harmful, or (more frequently than you might think) downright impossible. Ask yourself what you’re scared of, then what’s bad about that, then what’s bad about that, and what’s bad about that. Keep going until you find the true essence of what you’re afraid of.

6. Don’t believe everything you think.

Fears are based on beliefs, and beliefs are often usually flawed. Byron Katie has a powerful process that can help you discover the truth behind your fears. First you identify your beliefs (for example, if I ______, ______ will happen). Then you ask 4 questions:

  1. Is it true?
  2. [If yes] Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

7. Ask yourself: What’s the worst that could happen?

Often your worst-case scenario is not actually dangerous or devastating. Regardless, if you can find a way to accept it, fear will have no way to stop you.

8. Determine probabilities.

If your worst-case scenario is truly terrifying, get clear on how likely it is to really happen. Of all the possible outcomes, what’s the probability that this is the one you’ll be stuck with? To make sure you’re being realistic, have an objective third-party check your numbers.

9. Calculate your track record.

While we’re talking numbers, go ahead and calculate how accurate your fears really are. Write down all your worries for one month and then go back and note which ones came true. If we take the time to do this, most of us find that we’re batting somewhere close to zero (apology for the mixed sports metaphors).

10. Become your own mentor.

In The Fear Book, Cheri Huber offers the idea of becoming a mentor to the scared part of you. It’s a brilliant and effective strategy. To use it, just ask yourself anytime you feel scared: what would a wise and loving mentor tell me right now?

11. Turn it over.

Whether it’s God, goddesses, the universe, love, your highest self, or your dog, turning your fears over to something more powerful than you are is incredibly freeing. You don’t even have to believe in anything to get started. Just write your fears down, put them in a box, and say, “I’m turning this over to you, [insert higher power of your choice].” Then let go and see what happens, knowing it’s no longer in your hands. Review the items you’ve put in your box periodically and see how they’ve turned out to find evidence that regardless of how you feel about God, you are supported and cared for.

12. Take tiny baby steps.

Fear feeds on big, overwhelming tasks. To reduce the fear factor, break your goals down into steps. Then break those steps down into smaller steps. Then break those small steps down into even tinier steps until you have a task you can do in 10 minutes. You can do anything for 10 minutes, right? Afterward, be sure to celebrate your win and plan when you’ll take your next tiny baby step.

13. Make a back-up plan.

If things don’t go as you hope, what will you do? Create a plan for how you’ll take care of yourself during any setbacks and how you’ll continue to move towards what you want, even when things go awry.

14. Share with peers.

There’s something about sharing your fears with others who are going through something similar that inevitably breeds courage. Just be sure you’re sharing with people who are actively embracing and facing their fears, not running away from them.

15. Get feedback.

In his book Uncertainty, Jonathan Fields urges people facing anxiety in the creative process to get feedback from mentors, peers, and potential end-users early on as a way of building confidence and comfort. Asking people you trust to give you feedback on your efforts can be terrifying, but paradoxically, it’s also a powerful antidote to fear.

16. Practice discomfort.

When we fail to take action, we’re not usually avoiding a theoretical bad outcome so much as the immediate discomfort of fear or anxiety. Like someone with bad breath, most of us find fear so unpleasant that we’ll do just about anything to avoid it. To stop avoiding fear, you need to develop your ability to sit with discomfort. To do that, just engage in something that brings up anxiety on purpose every day, then practice sitting with it for slightly longer periods of time. When you’re able to tolerate discomfort, a whole new world of possibilities opens up.

17. Slow down.

Kindness is wonderful medicine for fear. If your fear is overwhelming, slow down and maybe even take a break. Do something comforting and familiar, something that makes you feel good about yourself, and then go back and try again.

18. Feel the edges of the fear.

Get curious about how your fear feels in your body. Notice where you feel it, what it feels like, and how it changes over time. After observing it for a little while, start to feel for its edges and begin to notice the places in your body where you don’t feel the fear (your little toe perhaps?). You’ll start to see that fear is actually just a bunch of sensations in your body, that it too has boundaries, and that it’s really nothing to be afraid of.

19. Address the fear’s concerns.

Your fear isn’t the enemy; it just doesn’t want you to become harmed, homeless, or humiliated. You probably don’t either, so let your fear know how you’re going to take care of what’s important to you even while you take a risk; remind it that things like what other people think of you don’t really affect your well-being; and watch as your newly consoled fear steps aside so you can open the gates of change.

20. Imagine a positive outcome.

If you want to loosen fear’s grip, you need to stop playing the worst-case scenario over and over in your head. Since you don’t know what will happen, and good outcomes are at least as likely as bad ones, you might as well choose to obsess about your best-case scenario in vibrant, gory detail.

21. Talk to someone who’s succeeded.

Fear likes facts. When I tell my fear everything will be okay, it demands proof. Finding someone who’s done what I want to do and flourished is pretty strong evidence that success is possible, and learning from their perspective makes it all the more likely. My fear is smart, but it can’t argue with that.

22. Talk to someone who’s failed.

When you do this, your fear is going to want you to use it as an opportunity find all the reasons you’re going to fail too. Resist this urge. Instead, ask this person all kinds of questions about how they recovered from their failure, what they learned, what skills they gained, and what new possibilities it opened up. When we’re afraid of failure, we forget that it actually carries many gifts, and your job is to discover from this person exactly what those are.

23. Find a purpose greater than the fear.

Fear usually stems from our egos’ concerns, like not having enough money or status, or looking bad to others. These aren’t the things that truly make us happy, though. To focus on what matters, define a better purpose for any given venture, one that you can fulfill regardless of where you end up. What might you get out of embarking on this adventure that’s more important than wealth or popularity? What might it allow you to give to others? What would make this effort worthwhile regardless of the outcome?

24. Meditate.

Fear isn’t the problem; believing everything it tells you is. Meditation is a great way to practice noticing your thoughts without buying into their conclusions all the time. It gives you the awareness you need to question your thoughts and the ability to let them go when they aren’t serving you. It also gives you a way to experience fear without being paralyzed by it. An ongoing meditation practice is one of the main reasons I’m able to do things that scare the pee out of me, over and over again.

25. Meditate.

Am I repeating myself? Yes. Is it for a good reason? I think so. In addition to giving us the ability to let go of unhelpful thoughts, meditation also connects us to our serenity, wisdom, and courage. We all have these qualities at our core, but we become unable to access them when fear is yammering in our ears all the time. Getting quiet, even if only for milliseconds at a time, helps us reconnect to the part of ourselves that is always compassionate and unafraid.

26. Bonus Idea: Meditate.

I’m not being lazy here, I swear. It’s really that important.

Over to You

What helps you feel your fear and do things anyway? I’d love to know, and so would everyone else. Please share in the comments below.

Hungry for More?

I recently re-released Passion Quest: 5 Steps to Find Your Calling in a Fear-Based World. It’s an affordable, structured, practical, and easy way to break through your fear, get clear about what kind of work you want to do in the world, and start actually doing it. Click here to find out more.


Photo Credit: Jade Craven // CC

Little One and the Serpent God (Or, Why Being Flawed Is a Good Thing)

Following is the fifteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.


“Wait, what?” Little One asked.

He could feel his face flushing as he forced himself to put the strange, black fruit down on his plate. He was horrified to realize that he had actually missed what the Serpent God said because he was so focused on the fruit’s unique—and quite delicious—flavor.

“I said, did you have to do anything to make the rainbow lightning machine show you the memory?” The god’s voice boomed throughout the cavernous, sunlit room they were in, but it remained calm.

“Oh,” Little One said, wiping his hands guiltily on his pants. “No. It just kind of came to life on its own once I got near it.” He thought for a moment. “Actually, I think it was already rumbling a bit by the time I got into the palace.” He picked up his cup and took a sip of the sweet, creamy brown liquid inside. “What is this again?” he asked his father.

“Xocoatl,” the god said. “Also sometimes referred to as food of the gods.”

“I can see why,” Little One said, nearly burning his tongue as he took another gulp.

“And you said you saw me arguing with someone?” the god persisted.

“Yes,” Little One nodded. “I couldn’t see who, but you seemed to be angry at first, then…” His voice drifted off awkwardly as he took a more calculated sip of his drink.

“Then what?” the Serpent God prompted gently. He made a motion with a pitcher for Little One to let him refill his mug.

“Then you seemed kind of frightened and sad.” He swallowed awkwardly but still managed to hold out his mug while his father poured. “You told him that you couldn’t do it anymore, sacrificing yourself in order to keep him happy. You said, ‘You are not who I thought you were. You win. You are free to do what you will.’”

The god’s eyes narrowed as the pitcher dropped back to the table with a loud thump. Little One wondered if he’d said too much. “I only vaguely remember saying that,” his father said. “It’s like my memory has holes in it, and everything else is…blurred.”

Little One moved something that looked like potatoes but tasted much better around on his plate. “That’s why I thought you were kidnapped at first, though I had no idea by whom.”

“So when did we talk?” the Serpent God asked, straightening suddenly and nearly bumping his head on a ceiling so high that Little One could barely see it.

“When I got back,” Little One answered, “after figuring out what had really happened.”

The giant serpent head shook. “No, I mean before you left. It’s blurry, but I remember two visits. One when you helped me to awaken, but one before that too.”

Now Little One shook his head. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I spoke with the memory at first, not realizing it wasn’t you”—he felt his cheeks flush again and quickly took another sip from his mug to hide it—“but the first time we actually conversed was last night, after I returned.”

His father was silent for a moment, his eyes searching his son’s as if probing for the truth. “Yes,” he finally said, “I believe you’re right. And yet I do remember speaking with somebody else, before last night, and getting very angry. It was several days before I could sleep again, and when I did, I slept for two days straight. Perhaps that is when you came to the palace, when I was still inert.”

Little One nodded. “Perhaps,” he agreed. He suddenly thought of the trail he had followed through the halls of the palace, the one he thought had been made by his father’s kidnapper. An idea began to form in his mind, giving him hope.

“So how did you figure out what really happened?” the Serpent God asked.

Little One abandoned whatever thought had been forming in order to answer his father; this was the third time he had asked this same question, after all.

“It was while fighting the Guardian of the Guru,” he said, noticing that his father’s gaze was fixed on something on his face. He hurriedly scrubbed his mouth and chin with his hand and flushed when he realized that the drink had left a foamy mustache on his upper lip. Taking a deep breath, he went on. “I probably should have figured it out right away based on the fact that the Guardian not only looked exactly like me, but fought like me as well.” He went on to tell the god the whole story of their fight.

“But I didn’t really understand,” Little One explained once he’d finished, “until the Guru told me something more. ‘There is no difference between you and me,’ he said. “Just as there is no difference between you and him.’ That’s when I realized: I was very nearly defeated by something that was a part of me. It didn’t want me to hear the Guru’s answer. Though I think the Guru is really part of me as well.” Little One paused, looking at the table in front of him and realizing that it looked as if a tornado had passed through, leaving crumbs everywhere. The cakes—pancakes, his father had called them—had been so delicious he hadn’t been very careful about how he was eating them. He winced. “I realize this sounds crazy, but that’s how I understood that you were also fighting a part of yourself. Because the Guardian wanted me to give up, and that’s what you did in the projection I saw. Somehow it just felt…the same.”

To his surprise, the Serpent God didn’t look at him as if he were losing his mind. Instead, he simply nodded his huge head. “So that’s when you came back to my palace?” he asked.

“Yes,” Little One said. “I figured that if you had been defeated by—if you had surrendered to a part of yourself, it meant you must still be in your palace. I had no idea how I was going to save you, but I hoped it would be clear enough when the time came.” He shrugged uncomfortably. “And I suppose, when the time came, it was.”

His father looked him in the eyes for a long time without saying anything. “I’m impressed,” he finally said, picking up a tray of the black fruits and adding three more to Little One’s plate.

Little One picked up one of the fruits and bit into it. Sweet juice exploded in his mouth and ran down his chin. He wiped it off on the back of his forearm. “Father,” he said. “What is this part of us that wants to defeat us?”

The Serpent God looked thoughtful for a moment. “I believe you know more than you think you do,” he said. “This Guardian of the Guru. Was he familiar at all to you?”

Little One considered the question, then nodded slowly. “Yes, actually. I wasn’t sure, but as I was fighting him, I got the sense that I had…engaged with him before. I think I felt him when the genie was offering me his gifts. He’s the one who wanted me to take them. It was the fear, I think, that convinced me to do it. And I think I have felt his presence other times, mostly when I’ve been afraid.”

The god nodded again. “And what about what you said to me earlier? ‘You have helped me to find my true self,’ you said. What do you know about this true self?”

“It is what told me to stop fighting the Guardian,” Little One answered without hesitating. “And to come back to the palace to find you. It is the courage I found in the Chamber of Doom, the love I feel for my sister, and the strength and freedom I discovered when the Guardian defeated me. It is the antithesis of the fear.”

“That’s exactly right,” the Serpent God said, and Little One felt a wave of warmth crash in his chest. “Except for that last part,” continued his father, as the wave quickly subsided.

“What do you mean?” Little One asked. “It’s not the antithesis of fear?”

“Perhaps it would be most helpful for me to start by telling you the story of how the world began.”

“Sure,” Little One said, smiling. He wasn’t sure if he was more excited to hear the truth about the world or to have time to eat the last two pieces of fruit on his plate.

“Well,” the Serpent God began, “in the beginning, all was one. There were no separate forms or individuals. All was one and all was light. If the light could have been refracted into its various colors, you would have seen courage, strength, love, joy, wisdom, freedom, and clarity. But in the beginning, they all made up a single whole without border or boundary.”

The god paused. “Perhaps it could have gone on that way forever,” he continued after a moment. “And perhaps it should have. But the light did not know itself, and it never could so long as nothing else existed to be able to perceive it. Without self knowledge, without movement, the light was not complete, so it created space and time. It then poured itself into diverse forms that would exist separately in the realm it had created.

At first it seemed that all was now in order. But the forms the light created knew what they were and where they had come from. They had no desire to stay disconnected from their source, and so they let their separate forms wither, decline, and die so that they could return to whence they came.

The light was back where it started, and so it began again. This time it gave the forms it made something special; something that would make them want to live and thrive in the world it had built for them. This part of them would not only want to survive, but help them know how. It would identify threats, seek advantages, and concern itself with their material well-being so their forms would not wither and die before they’d had a chance to know themselves.” The Serpent God had been looking off in the distance; now he turned to look his son directly in the eyes. “This gift, Little One, is the Guardian that you fought.”

“Gift?” Little One asked, remembering how the Guardian had nearly slit his throat.

“Yes, a double-edged gift, as all gifts are,” said the god, his eyes distant again, perhaps remembering his own imprisonment. “You see, it turns out that the same thing that gives us the desire and the means to survive also serves to make us forget. For as the inhabitants of space and time began to proliferate, they became so focused on threats and advantages that they failed to see what else was there; they saw only what their eyes perceived and grew blind to what lay underneath. In short, they forgot who they were and where they had come from.”

The Serpent God grunted and shifted around in his chair. “This situation was no better than the first, for without this memory, self knowledge was again impossible. That’s why the light created us.” He turned to meet Little One’s eyes again. “The gods, I mean. We were charged with helping mortal forms to know themselves, their true selves, before they died.”

Little One thought about what his father had said, and his first experience with the god. “So that’s why you built your palace the way you did, so that whoever sought you would have to discover their own light in order to enter?” he asked.

The Serpent God’s eyes suddenly became sad. “In part,” he said, shaking his head. “But I’m afraid that isn’t the full story.”

Little One looked up at him, a question he didn’t dare ask in his eyes. The god sighed heavily. “Yes, I will tell you the tale, painful though it is.” He looked away again, staring at something Little One couldn’t see. “You see, we gods fall somewhere between form and formlessness. Being immortal, we don’t need the Guardian in the same way you mortal forms do. But we require it in other ways. We are not pure light, after all, but we must remember where we come from, in order to remind you. It is a painful thing, to be separate, to know what it’s like to be whole, and to know you will not return to the source at the end of your lifetime as you mortal beings do. It takes a strong and stubborn Guardian to keep us willing to engage in the world with its separation and forgetfulness for all eternity.”

He looked at Little One again before continuing. “But all of this is perhaps an excuse. Because the truth is, it was me who allowed my Guardian to get too strong, who believed in its demands for power, prestige, and utter perfection. It has always demanded these things—it is part of its nature—but I always knew them to be shallow, unable to satiate or address the true nature of who and what I was.

And yet at some point I forgot. That is the worst thing a god can do—we are charged with helping others remember, after all. But somehow I forgot who I was, and why I was here, and I began to give the Guardian what it was demanding.”

The giant god sighed again. “Even now I am being vague, trying to avoid the truth of it. I know when it began. It was after one of my daughters, a particularly young one, I recall, knocked upon my door. This was before I built this palace, when I still lived with the other gods.

When I came to the door, she was already furious. ‘How could you?’ she asked, and went on to tell me how her entire family had been killed in fighting between her village and the next. ‘I prayed to you every night,’ she said, ‘asking you for help. I thought you were my father! And yet you did nothing, and now my family is dead.’

I remembered her prayers; they had nearly made me weep, in truth. But we gods have very specific purposes; there is much we cannot do. I tried to explain this to her. I tried to help her see her own light, that she might know she did not need me to weather this storm. But she did not feel it, no matter what I did, and she left my house more angry than she was when she arrived. And so I failed her twice: once in being unable to save her family, and once in letting her leave while still misunderstanding exactly who she was.”

The giant serpent head sank. “I could not forgive myself for my failure. Unable to face any more of my children—no, unable to face the prospect of failing any more of my children—I built this palace and hid it from the world. I created the rainbow lightning machine almost as an afterthought. I told everyone that it was because I was too harried and could not handle the number of petitioners I was receiving. I said the rainbow lightning was to make sure that only the worthy were able to reach me. I think I even believed it at the time. But I know now that I was hiding, unable to admit how terrified I was. The rainbow lightning was not a test; it was a way to ask for help without acknowledging what I was doing.”

“Father,” Little One said. “I am so sorry.”

“I am too,” said the Serpent God, his eyes glistening. “The great irony is that in my fear of failing, I failed more people than I will ever know. For a while my children kept coming to find me, and now and then one of them would make it through. But no matter what I did, it never felt like enough; the Guardian always demanded more. More results. More admiration. More devotion. I grew tired of arguing with it, and equally tired of trying to appease its insatiable appetite. Finally I stopped answering my door, and my children stopped coming. That was the last straw. Exhausted, without visitors, without purpose, I finally gave up. I let the Guardian take control and lost myself completely.” The god exhaled loudly. “Until you came,” he added, offering a sad smile.

Little One was surprised to find that he was angry. “The Guardian would not let you forget your failure. It made you believe you were not enough. It sowed so much fear that you hid yourself in your palace and gave up your purpose, and yet you say that it is not the antithesis of light? How can that be?”

The Serpent God’s smile grew both bigger and sadder. “You would think the Guardian is the enemy, based on my story. I’m almost tempted to believe it myself, because it would mean I could separate myself from my mistakes.” He turned to look at Little One. “But the truth is more complicated than that. The Guardian is not all of who we are. But it is part of us, and an important part at that.”

“Yes,” Little One said sourly. “I understand that it helps us survive. But it also destroys that which is best in us!”

The Serpent God shook his head slowly. “No, you misunderstand, my son. The Guardian is a gift, remember? It is inseparable from the light.”

Little One realized that his mouth was open. He closed it quickly and waited for his father to continue.

“In the beginning, when I first came to form and found out what I was to do, I used to fight the Guardian. I believed, much as you do, that it was a necessary evil. I thought that if I could somehow diminish it, or even—such was my arrogance—eradicate it, the humans I helped would remember their light and never forget it again.” He laughed, a bitter sound. “What I found was the same thing you did. When you fight the Guardian, you cannot win. It is as infinitely strong as you are, and it cannot be defeated.

But I found something even stranger when I did manage to weaken somebody’s Guardian. Because instead of remembering who they were and embracing it, they grew even more forgetful. Able to live a comfortable life free of the Guardian’s demands and criticisms, they had no further need of me or anything else that might wake them up to who they were. They lived their lives comfortably, perhaps even happily, but they did now know themselves. Not truly.”

The god paused, his head cocked. “Over the years I found many ways to help people remember who they were. Strangely, one of the fastest and most effective is to let their Guardians run their lives completely for a time. This tends to create such destruction and devastation that at some point they realize something is wrong. They begin to wonder if there isn’t something more to them or the world than what they’ve seen so far, and they become curious about what that might be. In that state, it doesn’t take much to wake them up or help them remember.”

Little One thought about this. He remembered how many times he had broken through to a new discovery after what felt like his darkest moments. “I suppose I can see that,” he finally said. “But I have to say I’m still confused. From what I understand, the Guardian creates fear—in my case, a whole lot of it—and when I’m afraid, I don’t feel that I am made of light. Far from it. So how can the Guardian help us remember, if it creates conditions under which memory is impossible?”

“Ah, yes, well, there’s the paradox,” said the Serpent God. “The Guardian will try to keep you from waking up. But it also makes it inevitable that it will happen, given enough time.”

Little One’s brow furrowed. He was about to ask another question when he realized his father was offering him more pancakes. Still puzzled, he nodded his head quickly.

“I generally find it best not to try to explain paradoxes,” the god said. “It tends to set the mind spinning, which is not conducive to remembrance.” He set three more pancakes on Little One’s plate. “But perhaps this can help clarify. You seem to think that you are afraid more often than you should be; perhaps even more than everyone else.”

Little One nodded, his mouth too full to speak.

“Well, first of all, I can tell you that almost every human I’ve spoken to believed the same thing. It’s a funny habit you all have, assuming that you know someone else’s internal experience from the limited things you can see, and then comparing yourselves to whatever it is you think you saw.”

He shook his head. “At any rate, the thing you miss is this: your pain points towards your true self every time. It is a sign that you have strayed away from it. The pain—whether it’s fear, anger, shame, or any other type of misery—can lead you to the exact place where you forgot who you were. It brings you back to that place where you can remember over and over again. And the truly magical thing, which even I do not understand fully, and which I have seen save untold numbers of humans, is that should you ignore its wisdom, the pain does not give up. It gets greater. It grows in intensity until it is strong enough to overwhelm you and your Guardian, so that you may listen.” He trembled slightly. “It is miraculous.”

Little One had a hard time believing that his fear was miraculous. “But it was only when I overcame my fear that I ever made progress,” he argued. “It was courage, not fear, that helped me.”

The Serpent God smiled. “And how did you overcome your fear? By going around it? Avoiding it? Destroying it? No, my son, you overcame it only by walking through it. In the Chamber of Doom, beneath the Tree of Life, even in the city of my children, you felt your fear completely, and that is what allowed you to move beyond it. It is the only way to overcome anything, because your greatest weaknesses are tied to your greatest strengths. Only by embracing them can you discover your true gifts.”

“What do you mean?” Little One asked, wiping some crumbs from his chin with the back of his hand.

“Your fear is part of your sensitivity,” the Serpent God said, handing Little One a napkin. “You feel things deeply. This is what helps you see beyond the external forms of this world. And seeing beyond the forms of this world is what will allow you to accomplish what you are here to do.”

He said it so matter-of-factly that it took Little One a moment to realize what he had just said. When he did, he nearly spit out the Xocoatl he had just poured in his mouth. “Wait, what am I here to do?” he asked, his eyes suddenly fixed on his father.

“You still do not see it?” the Serpent God asked. Little One shook his head slowly, wondering what he missed. “Long ago we gods realized that we were too few to help all those who needed us. So we began to have children, that they might help us with our task.” The diamonds in the center of the giant god’s eyes grew large. “You are my son,” he said. “You are here to help others remember who they truly are, as we gods do.”

Little One’s mind went blank. He had no words, no ideas, no response, but he was intensely aware of the iridescent walls, the sunlight playing off of them, the soft napkin in his hands, and the light in his father’s eyes. He felt warmth rising in him, as well as a settling sensation, as if all the bones and muscles in his body had just found their perfect place.

“You feel it, do you not?” his father continued. “The fit of it. Just as you felt the call to leave your village and seek me, even before you knew what it was you sought.”

There were still no words in Little One’s mind. He just stared at his father with his eyes wide and his mouth open. He barely registered the food in front of him.

“And you felt which way to go, even if you were not sure of it. It did not really matter, for all paths lead back to the one you’re meant to be on, but you knew which path to take.”

Little One nodded mutely.

“All of our children have this capacity to hear the call, and to follow it, despite uncertainty about where they are going. It is in following the call, mysterious as it is, that they discover who they really are, and what they’re here to do.”

It felt to Little One as if the entire world were vibrating, matching the rhythm of his own heart. “I am here to help people remember that they are made of light?” he finally managed to ask in a breathless voice.

“Yes, my son,” said the Serpent God. “That is your mission.”

Little One felt as if he were suddenly nearly as large as the Serpent God before him.

“But there is one more thing you should know,” his father said. Little One noticed that there was now a glint in the god’s eyes, and his lips twitched slightly. “Most of my children get big heads when they first hear their mission. They are proud to be the son of a god.” He laughed. “As well you should be. But you should also know that while you are special, you are not that special. For by now every human is the descendant of some god. And you all have the mission to help each other remember. You do it in vastly different ways, and you focus on different aspects of the light, but you—we—are all tempted to forget our purpose and use our gifts for the Guardian’s goals, and we need each other to remind us of who we really are.”

The room was still vibrating, but now it was spinning as well. The Serpent God laughed. “You look like your head is about to explode. It’s never happened before, but I’d hate for you to be the first. I have given you much to process. I will leave you to your meal, and afterward you will sleep. I will return after we have both had time to rest.”

Little One nodded. As his father stood up and turned to leave, a lone thought appeared in his mind. “Father!” he called, and the giant serpent form turned towards him.

“Yes, my son?” rumbled the god.

“Thank you,” Little One said. “I am deeply grateful.”

The Serpent God winked. “For the knowledge, or the breakfast? I am still not sure which you enjoyed most.” He laughed to himself, then turned and walked through a towering doorway in the iridescent wall.

Little One turned back to the table. He thought he was too overcome to want to eat anything more, but as he stared at his plate and tried to form a coherent thought, he found himself picking up pieces of pancake, dipping them in syrup, and placing them in his mouth.

His first recognizable thought was a prayer that pancakes be a part of his calling.


Click here to read the next story in the series.


Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

 

Little One and the Key to Power (Or, What Even the Gods Need More of)

Following is the fourteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.


Little One soon realized that there were two problems with his plan to return to the Palace of the Serpent God in light of his new understanding so that he could rescue his father.

The first was finding the palace.

The second was finding his father.

He had already walked dozens of miles through the grasslands before he figured out how to solve the first problem. His feet were sore, his muscles ached, and he had eaten his way through his entire supply of food and water now that he had rejected the genie’s gift of a backpack that continually restocked itself. He almost wished he had kept that one boon, but the genie’s other presents had all led to equally unforeseen and undesirable outcomes, and he didn’t want to take the risk of something else derailing his quest.

The problem was, he wasn’t sure where he was in relation to the palace. He had traveled here directly from the palace, true enough, but he’d reached the grasslands by falling through an enormous abyss, and as if that weren’t enough to disorient him, he’d also gotten lost multiple times since arriving.

He was staring at the stars when the answer came to him. He’d been trying to sleep and having a hard time of it because of an empty belly. Wondering how far away the stars were, he began to think that it must be very far indeed if they were truly little suns, as they looked. He considered the fact that he might very well be losing his mind but allowed himself to speculate anyway that one of the stars might be his father’s palace; at the very least, that would explain the long fall on the way here.

But that didn’t make any sense. He and Ginger had found the Serpent God’s palace when they were in the mountains. He’d walked all the way around the mountains before finding it, and there were no adjacent grasslands, nor any abysses. He was pretty sure he would have noticed a giant chasm of nothingness you could fall through for days if there had been one nearby.

That’s when it hit him: his father’s palace wasn’t in any one, fixed location. Rather, it was everywhere and nowhere at once, accessible only to those who knew how to find it.

To find the god, you must enter the palace. To enter the palace, you must find the god.

The god he’d had to find was within himself—his own strength, courage, and wisdom. Reconnecting with that had been what allowed him to enter the palace.

That meant he knew what he needed to do to return. Rolling up his blanket and packing his things into his backpack, he recalled how he’d felt when he defeated the guardian of the guru. He could feel his power, the golden warmth of his gifts as it spread from his core all the way out to his hands and feet. As he did, the night around him began to darken, eventually going completely black. Not even the stars were visible anymore, and it was almost as if he were floating weightlessly through another abyss.

This time, though, he didn’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes the darkness began to resolve itself into shapes—a dark box just in front of him, with cylinders extending out to all sides. A little ways off he could make out curved walls with periodic columns like spines forming a perfect circle around him. A grimy dome above him let a dim patch of moonlight shine through where some of the grease had been haphazardly rubbed off.

He remembered the last time he’d been in this room, and what he’d seen through the circle he cleared on the dome.

His father had appeared as a giant god far bigger than the tallest tree. He had a human body covered in scales and a snake’s head and thrashing tail. Congratulations, he’d said. You achieved everything you set out to do.

Little One had thought he was talking to him.

But for the sake of what? the God had boomed. What did you really gain?

Little One hadn’t known how to answer, but it didn’t matter; his father had continued regardless.

You have no idea. Oh yes, sure, you have plenty of answers for everyone else, but absolutely none for yourself. And now in your quest for recognition, in your insatiable hunger for success, you have lost the one thing that you actually cared for.

Only later did Little One realize that his father’s words weren’t directed at him. The Serpent God wasn’t actually there; he was witnessing a memory somehow recorded and replayed by the box with the cylinders surrounding it.

Well, I can’t do it anymore, his father had said. I can’t keep sacrificing myself in order to give you what you want.

It was the sadness and the fear in his father’s voice that had made Little One conclude that he had been kidnapped by someone he used to know and trust—that and his final words.

You are not who I thought you were, the Serpent God had said just before disappearing. I give up. You win. You are free to do what you will.

Little One shook his head as he remembered. His initial conclusion had made sense at the time, but he still had a hard time believing how wrong it had been and how long he had taken to see that.

Standing in the circular room once again, he took a deep breath. He had solved his first problem of finding the palace. Now it was time to address the second.

Finding his father, however, turned out not to be a problem at all.

Before he had finished exhaling, Little One heard something snarl above him. Looking up through the dome, he saw the same figure he had seen before with huge feet, brown- and green-scaled legs, an enormous tail, and a snake’s head so far above him that it nearly disappeared into the sky.

Little One looked at the black box in front of him and the multicolored cylinders around it. All were dark and motionless. His mouth went dry and the golden warmth disappeared. This wasn’t a memory, or a recording. His father was really towering over him.

“So you’ve come to find the great Serpent God,” the giant figure said, its huge tail swishing back and forth. “Well, here I am.”

Little One swallowed, reminding himself of his reason for being here. “Hello, Father,” he said, the words no more than squeaks by the time they left his mouth.

“I can’t hear you!” roared the Serpent God. “Speak up, boy!” Little One saw something huge and dark descend like a falling boulder. Before he could react, the dome above him exploded into thousands of pieces and the god was straightening back up.

Little One wondered if the god had meant to smash him along with the dome. He didn’t wait to find out. “I said, Hello, Father.”

Father, yes,” the Serpent God rumbled, his voice like a distant earthquake. “So the errant son returns. I suppose now that you’ve passed your tests, you’re here to claim your reward.”

Little One felt panic rise within him. He had to wait for it to pass before he could feel that a small current of warmth was still coursing through him.

“No, Father,” he said more firmly. “I’m not here for any reward.”

The red eyes seemed to bore into his face as they searched him. “I see,” boomed the god. “Then you must be here to beg my assistance.”

Little One swallowed again. “No, Father,” he said. “I’m not here to ask for aid either.”

The enormous tail swung back and forth in the sky. “Wisdom, then? Many of my children used to come for wisdom. Gods, too. What type of answers do you beseech?”

“I do not come seeking answers,” Little One said.

“Then why on earth are you here? To worship me? To get in my good graces for a future favor? To tell all your friends that you spoke with the great Serpent God?”

“No,” Little One said. He felt his feet on the ground, the quiet strength running up through them. “Father, I have come to save you.”

The enormous tail swung towards him and smashed into the palace wall to his right, leaving a dark hole in its wake. As he flinched despite himself, Little One couldn’t help but wonder if the blow was meant for him. He shook his head, reminding himself that if the god had meant to hit him, he would already be dead. The thought gave him hope.

“Save me?” the god laughed. “You must be confused. Why would the most powerful god in the world need saving?”

Little One had to make an effort to keep his voice calm. “Because you’ve lost the one thing you actually cared about,” he said quietly, just loud enough to be heard.

“And what’s that?” the god asked, his face contorted into a sneer.

“Yourself,” Little One said softly.

The red eyes glared at him. He could almost feel them burning holes in his skin, despite the distance. “I have lost nothing,” the Serpent God rumbled, his voice like crashing thunder. “Nothing that matters. I am the most powerful god in the world. I can have anything I want. Anything! Even the other gods worship me. I had to build the hidden palace that you’re standing in just to get away from them. But what would you understand of such things? You are nothing but a human, and a failed one at that.” The tail lashed back and forth.

Little One looked up at the God, a question in his eyes.

“Oh, yes,” the deep voice rolled on. “I know what you have been up to. I am a god, remember? I see all. I saw you lose to the guardian of the guru, saw you fail to get the answer you sought, saw you squander the genie’s gifts. You are nothing but a feeble, pathetic loser.”

Little One fought the urge to defend himself, to clarify what had actually happened. “That may be true, Father, but I also learned something that I believe can help you. It has already helped me.”

“I do not need your help!” roared the god. “Are you stupid as well as weak? I have told you. I am the most powerful god there is. I have everything I have ever wanted. I am successful beyond your wildest dreams! What could I possibly need from you?”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Little One continued calmly. “Perhaps there is nothing you need from me. But tell me this: Is this really all you’ve ever wanted? It looks awfully lonely to me.”

Something flickered quickly across the Serpent God’s face, but in the next instant it was gone. “You have no idea what you are talking about, boy,” he hissed. “There is no one who is more respected, feared, or admired than me.”

“Yes,” Little one said, nodding his head. “I see that. You have done very well, far better than I ever could. My only question is, how does it feel to be so successful?”

The red eyes were glowing again, but the god didn’t say anything.

“Do you feel satisfied?” Little One asked. “Peaceful? Fulfilled? Do you feel good about all that you’ve done? Can you feel the strength of your gifts?”

Suddenly the tail came crashing down on the other side of Little One, smashing another section of wall. “I am tired of your idiotic questions!” the Serpent God roared. “I have no time for this! I will destroy you like the ant that you are!” The tail flew back up towards the sky, this time directly over Little One’s head.

“Because I can, Father,” Little One said quickly, resisting the urge to duck. “I can feel so much beauty, light, and love within you, even if you can’t.”

For a long time there was silence. Finally the god said in a low growl, “And why should I care about these things? Why should I listen to you about any of this?”

“I have been lost too, Father,” Little One said. “I know how painful it is. I want you to find again what I know is within you. So that you and the world will know your light once again.”

The tail descended slowly back to the ground, where it lay motionless. The giant body slumped, and there was a soft noise like wind passing over mountaintops.

“Why will you not worship me?” the god finally asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.

Little One looked up at him, his heart both heavy and full. “Because you have helped me to find my true self,” he said equally softly. “And so for you I am able to feel nothing but love.”

He heard a loud whimpering sound as the giant serpent head stared at him for a long moment before closing its eyes. Time passed, and Little One wondered if he had saved his father or destroyed him. Then suddenly the eyes flew open again, and he was surprised to notice that they were no longer red.

The large head descended from the sky until it had reached the height of the surrounding treetops. It was huge in front of him; he realized that the head alone was at least three times as wide as he was tall.

“Thank you, Son,” the Serpent God said softly, his black eyes glittering in the night. “You have no idea what you have done for me tonight.”

“It is surely no more than you have done for me,” Little One answered, hardly daring to believe that he was finally speaking with his true father.

The Serpent God straightened back up to his full height. “How did you know?” he asked from above, his voice booming now. “How did you figure out what happened, and how to save me?”

Little One was about to answer when he heard something growl quietly very close to him. He jumped, startled, and looked around for the source of the noise. When he realized what it was, he flushed, hoping his father hadn’t seen. “It was you who showed me,” he finally managed to answer. “You and this box.” He nodded his head towards the black box with the cylinders in front of him.

“The rainbow lightning box?” the Serpent God asked, a furrow appearing on his serpentine face.

“Yes,” Little One said, smiling in self-satisfaction at having been right. “It played a…sort of memory of you that I could see when I first came here. I misunderstood what it meant at the time, but eventually I figured it out.”

The god’s face grew dark. “Strange,” he said. “I didn’t know it could do that.” He paused, and Little One could just make out his eyes narrowing against the sky, which was beginning to lighten with the coming dawn. When he spoke again, his words sounded more like demands than questions. “But you still haven’t told me: what did you misunderstand, and how did you come to learn the truth?”

Little One opened his mouth to answer when he heard the snarling noise again, this time much louder.

“What was that?” the god snapped, disbelief clear on his face. “Are you growling at me? Boy, I will make you regret the day you were born. I will—”

Suddenly the sky exploded into thunderous noise and the ground beneath Little One shook. He instinctively ducked down, covering the back of his head with his hands. When the sound finally faded, he peeked out from beneath his arms. The Serpent God had a huge smile on his face.

“You’re hungry,” his father said. “That was your stomach growling, was it not?”

Little One straightened up enough to look at his father directly, but he kept his hands over the back of his head. “Yes, sir,” he said.

“I apologize, son,” said the Serpent God. “I’m afraid I developed some bad habits over the last few years. Would you do me the favor of forgiving me, and accompanying me into my palace for some breakfast?”

Little One lowered his hands back to his sides and nodded slowly.

“And please, call me Father,” said the god.

“Yes, Father,” Little One said, feeling strangely reassured that even a god could have such a lapse, and what’s more, that he could laugh about it.

As he watched the walls around him grow to fit the giant form before him—given the dynamic location of the palace, Little One supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that its size was relative as well—there was only one thing detracting from the lightness that he felt. Standing up straight and rolling his shoulders behind him, he decided to assume that she was on her way and would arrive at any moment.

As his father looked down at him with an amused smile still on his face, Little One saw something sparkle in his eyes. It wasn’t the sun, he realized, which was shining somewhere behind the god’s ankle. It was peace, rather, and freedom, and a wide ocean of joy.


Click here to read the next story in the series.


Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC