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Little One and the Calling

Following is the twentieth and final 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.

They say that Little One—demon conqueror, sorceress tamer, genie liberator, vanquisher of the Great Dissatisfaction, and savior of mankind—was a perfect being with supreme insight and wisdom.

Infinitely intelligent, he was the first to have the idea to go on a quest to find his calling. Son of the Serpent God, he neither possessed flaws nor committed errors in judgment. Precocious in his enlightenment, he saw truths that remained invisible to others until he himself brought them to light. The vast majority of the people who study these things agree, therefore, that if he blundered, there must have been a reason, and if he made missteps, they must have been made on purpose.

Because nobody can deny that up until the very end, Little One made many mistakes.

The question that nobody can answer is: Why?

Why did he return to his village just after a large harvest, when people were most resistant to his message and the key to fulfilling his calling was not yet available to be applied?

It’s well known that at the time of his return, Little One’s village was caught in the throes of what is now known as The Great Dissatisfaction. Responding to a sharp decline in personal fulfillment, villagers had expanded the amount of land under cultivation multiple times in an effort to increase the material resources available to them. Only partially successful, their efforts did lead to improvements in the quantity and quality of the food, clothing, and shelter they enjoyed, but the gains began to require greater and greater inputs, and even these improvements failed to satisfy many for long. Even before Little One left on his journey, the cycle was clearly established whereby villagers worked long hours to grow more crops in an effort to feel more fulfilled, but the results of their efforts, no matter how great, only seemed to add to their dissatisfaction.

Some villagers had noticed this pattern, but they believed the answer lay in new farming methods or more efficient means of production. In fact, the autumn in which Little One returned to the village had seen the greatest harvest ever recorded as a result of these reforms. Villagers’ moods were temporarily assuaged by such wealth, leading some to prematurely declare the Great Dissatisfaction over. Why Little One would choose to return at such an inauspicious time for his purpose is indeed one of the great unresolved mysteries of his day.

Other questions remain as well:

Why, for example, did Little One try to win over the village leaders first, when it is well known that similar efforts had failed to enlighten his demi-god siblings, and besides which, as anyone could have reasoned out, the leaders were the least likely to want to hear what he was saying?

Why did he wait over a year to begin farming again, swearing to any who questioned him that his calling must lie elsewhere?

And when he did once again return to the land, why did he waste an entire season cultivating the same crops as everyone else, in the same manner as everyone else, when his greatest contributions would be to help others find a different way to work?

Unsatisfying as it is, the answer remains that we may never know.

*   *   *

Little One sat across the table from the girl, a plate piled high with pancakes sitting in front of each of them.

“But how do I even know that I’ll find what I’m looking for?” she asked between mouthfuls. He noted with satisfaction that despite her obvious anxiety, her appetite for the pancakes remained undiminished.

“You may not,” he answered between mouthfuls of his own. “You might find something even better.”

“How can you be so sure?” Her brows furrowed, and she noisily put down her fork, but then she immediately picked it right back up and began working on her next bite.

“You feel the dissatisfaction, right? And all your efforts to increase your harvest have failed to relieve it?” She nodded glumly, her mouth too stuffed with pancakes to answer. “That’s because they can’t,” he went on calmly. “Your hunger is of a different nature. The dissatisfaction is a sign that something is calling you.”

“And that is…?”

“You’ll only know if you answer the call. You find it in the searching.”

She frowned briefly before reaching out for more syrup. “But what if I don’t? What if I get lost and can’t find anything?” she asked after a moment, her mouth full again and syrup now dripping down her chin.

Little One smiled, remembering a white-haired woman with a shawl the color of shadows. “You can only be lost if you don’t know the way home.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” There was a familiar edge of frustration in her voice.

“It means that if I can do it, so can you.”

She shook her head, crumbs flying everywhere. “But you’re the son of a God!”

Little One chuckled. “And you’re the daughter of one! We just don’t know which one yet. Answering the call will help you find out.”

“But you know way more than I do.”

Now Little One shook his head. “I didn’t when I first started. When I left the village, I knew less than you do now.”

She stopped cutting her pancakes long enough to look up at him, her brown eyes narrow. “But you’re smarter than me!” she insisted.

Little One burst out laughing. It took him a few moments to compose himself. “Do you remember when I first returned to the village?” he asked when he could finally speak again.

“Yeah. We all ignored you except for your sister, who ran up and gave you a hug.”

Little One smiled at the memory. “Exactly. And even after I went to speak with everyone and told them all my adventures, the village leaders still wanted nothing to do with me. But I insisted on trying to teach them everything I’d learned anyway. Do you remember how that went?”

A small smile bloomed on the girl’s lips. “Not very well,” she said before shoving more pancakes in her mouth.

“Perhaps slightly understated, but correct nonetheless. They wanted even less to do with me after that. And do you remember what I did that first year I was back?”

Her forehead creased as she thought carefully. “No,” she finally admitted.

Little One smiled. “That’s because I didn’t do anything. I walked around anxious about the fact that I didn’t know what to do and swearing that even though I didn’t know what it was, I was sure that my calling had nothing to do with farming.”

She looked up at him quickly. “But then you realized that it did.”

He nodded. “Yes, though I was painfully slow to get it even then. At first I started farming again simply out of curiosity. I’d remembered the seeds that my father the Serpent God had given me and wanted to see what immaculate peas looked like.” Little One laughed. “But that whole first growing year, I worked long days, only grew what I needed, and harvested the fields myself.”

“That was before the rest of us joined,” the girl said excitedly.

“Exactly. It wasn’t until the second year that I noticed you and your friends watching me every afternoon from behind the trees and invited you to help.”

“That’s when you started taking afternoons off.”

“Right again. With all your help, I didn’t have to work the fields late into the evenings anymore. I started using the afternoons to experiment with other ways to farm. That’s how I discovered that certain combinations of crops can actually enrich the soil and help the plants stay strong and healthy over a long period of time.”

The girl’s hands both shot up into the air. “And pancakes! You invented pancakes!”

Little One chuckled. “Learned to make them, really. My father was the one who invented them. But yes. I also rediscovered pancakes. I set them aside for so long because I believed that my mission was too important to have time to worry about food. But with you and your friends working my fields, I had to give something back to your parents for your time, and pancakes were so filling that I figured they would be the best thing I could offer.”

“And the most delicious,” the girl added, pulling one from his plate onto hers.

“Also true,” Little One agreed. “And that’s when I realized that when people eat pancakes, they relax, and when they relax, they see their truth more easily.”

“So you started inviting people over to eat pancakes.”

Little One nodded. “Exactly. And to talk to them about who they really are. Like we’re doing now.” He smiled. “You’d have to try hard to make more miscalculations or mistakes than I did before finally figuring out how best to use my gifts.”

The girl thought this over. “But isn’t it dangerous?” she asked after a moment.

Little One’s eyebrows rose. “Sometimes, I suppose,” he answered. “Occasionally someone gets quite upset if they aren’t ready to hear the truth about who they are.”

The girl giggled. “No, I mean the journey you’re asking me to go on. Isn’t it dangerous?”

Little One shrugged. “Not really,” he said.

“Then why am I afraid?”

“Because you’re human. Because the outcome is unknown. Because like most of us, you’re confused about what really keeps you safe.” He paused, the ghost of a smile passing over his face. “You know, a wise creature once told me that fear is a lack of vision. If you saw things clearly, you wouldn’t be afraid.

“Why is that?”

Because what you’re most afraid of doesn’t exist.”

“What does that even mean?”

“I didn’t understand either at first. Not until I was willing to face my fear directly did I realize that what I fear most isn’t starvation, or injury, or death. It’s losing what matters most. But when I finally understood exactly what that was, I realized that it can’t be lost.”

The girl put down her fork, crossed her arms, and wrinkled her nose at him. “Can’t I just stay here and help out on the farm?”

Little One put down his own fork and met her stare. “Of course,” he answered easily. “But you’ll have to work harder and harder not to hear the call. It’ll just get louder and more irritating until you’re exhausted from trying so hard to deny that it’s there. And all you’ll really manage to do is put off the inevitable anyway.”

She stuck out her tongue at him. “How will I even know where to go?”

The ghostly smile returned as Little One thought he saw a serpentine shape slide through the shadows in the corner of the room. “Lisssssten,” he echoed.

“What does that mean?” the girl asked.

Little One laughed. “Jussssst lisssssten.”

Her eyes grew narrow again. “This is serious, Little One! What if I fail?”

Even after all this time, he was still amazed when he saw that despite their differences, the conversations were all fundamentally the same.  “If you fail, little one, then perhaps you will find that what you were looking for was within you all along.”

She was quiet for a long moment. “You really believe that I’m the daughter of a god? That I have a gift to give the world like you?”

Little One smiled. It was a clever trick of the gods, making it so difficult to see in yourself, so easy to recognize in somebody else. He couldn’t be sure of their reasons, but guessed it had to do with making sure nobody tried to do it all alone. “I’ve been wrong about many things,” he began. “Did I tell you about the time I fell out of bed and broke my nose because I believed a bad dream meant I was doomed to fail?”

The girl giggled. “No,” she said. “You really broke your nose?”

He nodded. “Embarrassingly, yes. I panicked and literally fell on my face, though the dream meant nothing, and I didn’t end up failing. Not irreversibly, anyway. The point is, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been wrong about many things. But about this I am certain: the gifts of the gods run through you, as they do in all of us. And there are talents within you that if you don’t share, nobody else can. And the world, which needs your gifts, won’t have them. And if that’s not reason enough to go, then I don’t know what is.”

Her brown eyes stared at her empty plate. “I’ll go,” she said quietly before her eyes suddenly rose to meet his. “But if I need help…”

“I’ll be right beside you,” Little One answered, reaching across the table to put his hand on her arm.

Putting the last bite of pancake into his mouth with his other hand, he thanked the gods that there were fields to work, pancakes to eat, and people in the world for him to walk beside.

*   *   *

Mysteries linger. But regardless of the reasons for his obvious missteps, what remains uncontroversial is the enormous impact Little One had on the world.

During his lifetime, he helped dozens of his fellow villagers, and later hundreds of people in homes far distant, go on quests of their own to find their calling. Some of these people returned to then encourage others to go, creating a ripple effect that continues to this day.

As adventurers returned from their journeys, they began to find new ways of doing things. Some, like Little One, created new technologies and inventive forms of food, clothing, and shelter. Others gravitated towards novel forms of expression, and vibrant arts began to take root in the village. Still others found unique ways to support fellow villagers, so that whenever someone faced a challenge, there were others there to help them through it.

Before long, the villagers began to notice something strange: They hadn’t expanded the land under cultivation for quite some time—in fact, some of the newest farmland now lay fallow, and they were all working fewer hours in the fields—but their level of satisfaction was rising. They were happier with simpler clothes, functional houses, and only moderate levels of food (though demand for pancakes never seemed to lessen). Their lives felt rich and vibrant despite fewer material inputs. Something else was filling them up, though for a long time nobody could say exactly what that was.

Little One knew, of course.

By the time he grew old, people knew, loved, and respected him in villages all around the mountains in which he had his adventures. When it became known that his health was fading, a steady stream of pilgrims began arriving at his house to pay their respects and thank him for his guidance.

In addition to the villagers who had found their calling as a result of Little One’s efforts, they included his siblings from the City of the Children of the Serpent God, an ogre, and a strange, beautiful woman dressed in red. And Ginger, of course, who had helped Little One lead seekers on adventures many times over the years, contributed her own inventions to his ambitious projects, and visited him and his family frequently.

When somebody asked Little One how he had ended the Great Dissatisfaction, he smiled. “I did not end it,” he said. “You did. All of you. By learning how to be filled by your true nature.”

“But you were the first, and you showed us the way,” his wife added.

He shook his head. “I happened to be in a position to go on the first journey,” he agreed. “But many of you have improved on what I did since, or been first in your own efforts in your own way, and you have all taught me at least as much as I have taught you.”

Many others asked questions as well, the answers to which form the backbone of what we now know of Little One’s life and teachings. But they say it was his great-granddaughter who asked the final question, the one most discussed among Little One scholars.

It is recorded that she was crying. “Why are you leaving us?” she asked. “Aren’t you scared to go?”

To which Little One looked up at Ginger, smiled, and replied thus:

“Once, in a moment when I was consumed with self-doubt, a wise woman told me that it was impossible for me to fail in my purpose of helping people remember who they really are. ‘You can’t not do it,’ she said. ‘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 was right. Fulfilling my purpose was nothing more than connecting with my own true nature, which in turn is like water returning to the ocean. And what is death but the ultimate return? No, my love, there is nothing to fear in this or anything else, for that which matters most can never be lost.”

While it’s true that most believe that Little One was a perfect being, there are some who still insist that he was just a man. This minority asserts that the greatest gift he gave us was not a perfect ideal to aspire to or an impeccable model to compare ourselves against, but rather an example to follow of someone who possessed both human flaws and godly perfection.

He didn’t know everything. He made mistakes. He failed, many times.

And therein lies his gift. Little One changed the world not despite his flaws, but because of them.

Given what the application of curiosity, love, and compassion to his shortcomings made possible, what miracles might the rest of us be capable of, with so many failings of our own just waiting to be transformed?

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Say What?! (Daring to Hear Your Inner Wisdom)

As you may have picked up in a previous post, my husband and I are thinking of moving and have been looking at houses nearby.

Recently we saw a sweet one on a beautiful piece of land that was priced well under our budget, but it needed a lot of work if it was going to give us what we wanted. As we met with architects, contractors, engineers, and other experts to explore the possibilities, I paid close attention to my internal response. I meditated on what we found, journaled about it, discussed it with people I trust, all the while paying attention to my thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, and listening for the subtle stirrings of desire.

In other words, I was doing my best to hear my Inner Wisdom.

What I heard, over and over, was: Yes. This is the right house, the right step to take. It’s going to be a lot of work. It may be stressful and overwhelming at times. You’ll probably run into many challenges. But you can handle it, it’ll help you grow, and you can create something wonderful on land that you’re already beginning to love. (Fortunately, my husband agreed.)

Due diligence expired, and I began to get excited. Having made the decision to buy the house, I felt energized, enthusiastic, and capable, not to mention incredibly blessed to have this opportunity in front of us.

And then, a few days before closing, my confidence evaporated. What I can only describe as a tsunami of fear crashed over me, washing away excitement and leaving only panic in its wake. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much money it was going to cost, how much work it would be, and how many things could possibly go wrong.

Doubt overtook me. We were already running into some unexpected expenses. Had we made the wrong decision? Was my Inner Wisdom wrong? Should we back out of the contract before it was too late?

A Confusing Pattern

The same thing happens to my clients all the time. They do a lot of work to come up with promising career ideas, explore them, and use their Inner Wisdom to find a possibility they’re excited about. There’s usually a window of time that lasts somewhere between an hour and a month in which they too feel enthusiastic, confident, and optimistic.

The window promptly closes somewhere around the time when change starts to get real. Then suddenly, without warning, the tidal wave comes, sometimes drowning them in fear, panic, and doubt, sometimes merely soaking them to the bone.

So what’s the deal? Why does this happen? And how can we possibly know how to navigate important life decisions when something that feels so good one minute feels so bad the next?

The key to answering all three questions is to understand exactly what Inner Wisdom is.

So, What is Inner Wisdom?

I first discovered the presence of a wise voice inside me when I was struggling with depression in my mid-twenties. I began to find that even in my worst moments, when I felt utterly alone, confused, and hopeless, I could still sometimes hear the whisper of something far wiser than me if I just got quiet enough. It spoke softly, calmly, and compassionately; gave voice to truths that seemed to come out of nowhere; and slowly but surely guided me out of my misery when everything I’d tried before had only made it worse.

One step at a time, I followed my Inner Wisdom out of depression and back to myself.

Since then, that quiet, inner voice has led me to do things that I wouldn’t have thought possible. It steered me towards building a thriving coaching practice, marrying a wonderful man, writing a novel, developing meaningful relationships, returning to my roots in Atlanta, and expanding myself mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It helps me make difficult decisions that turn out well when there’s no way to rationally anticipate what might be the better option. It’s no exaggeration to say that every time I follow my Inner Wisdom, I discover greater levels of joy, freedom, and fulfillment.***

 So what is this voice exactly?

If you’re not the woo-woo type, here’s a scientific explanation: Inner Wisdom (or intuition) is another name for the things we know but don’t know that we know. Recent research suggests that it’s measurable and can indeed help people make faster, more accurate, and more confident decisions. What’s more, scientists have found that there’s an intrinsic nervous system in the heart and a secondary “brain” in the gut, both of which function independently and send more information to the brain in our head than vice versa. In other words, our bodies provide us with information and intelligence that goes far beyond our rational, conscious thought.

I personally see Inner Wisdom as the voice of my true self. It comes from the part of me that extends beyond ego, and that’s free from fear, constrictions, or limiting beliefs.

I also believe that it comes from a collective wisdom that we can tap into if we’re willing to get quiet and listen. Joanna Macy talks about how when we act on behalf of something greater than ourselves, we have access to the wisdom, beauty, and strength of our fellow humans and our fellow species. This absolutely feels true to me as well, and perhaps explains why my Inner Wisdom seems to know so many things that I don’t, and benefits others as much as it does myself.

How to Hear Your Inner Wisdom 101

When I coach clients in how to know what their intuition is saying, we usually start with the body. Wisdom can show up in any of our three centers of intelligence, but it’s generally easiest to hear in the body. Paying attention to physical sensations and noticing what helps your body feel more open, spacious, relaxed, or energized can give you great clues about where your Inner Wisdom is pointing.

In addition, observing the flavor of your thoughts can help you identify what’s coming from Inner Wisdom and what’s coming from your Inner Critic. I recently wrote a whole post about how to identify your Critic, and you can learn a lot about your intuition just by noticing which thoughts are the opposite of what I describe there.

To put it simply, your Inner Wisdom is usually quiet, calm, patient, loving, and compassionate. When you listen to it, you understand that you have plenty of time, you’re going to be okay, and no matter how you feel, you’re still a whole, lovable, and worthy human being. Fear and your Inner Critic, on the other hand, are generally urgent, dire, judgmental, and belittling. They make it seem likely that everything good is about to implode, most probably because you’re fundamentally flawed.

A great way to learn more about how your Inner Wisdom speaks to you is to keep a record of all the times you think you hear its voice. Write down how you recognized it, what it told you, what you decided as a result of hearing it, and how that decision turned out. If you’re like me, over time you’ll start to gather evidence that your Inner Wisdom is quite trustworthy, as well as some powerful clues for how to identify it.

How to Hear Your Inner Wisdom 201

Now here’s where things start to get interesting.

Often I have clients who tell me that their Inner Wisdom is telling them—surprise!— to stay in their current job after all because they realized that it isn’t as bad as they originally thought.

Sometimes this is actually true; more often, however, it’s a sign that they’ve run face-first into the wall of fear that usually sits just on the other side of wisdom.

Because sooner or later, our Inner Wisdom always leads us towards what we fear most. This isn’t a punishment or sign that we’re doomed to misery; I rather see it as evidence that (as David Whyte puts it) this world was made to be free in. The universe conspires to open us up and remove our constrictions by pointing us towards our fears again and again and again; that way, we have plenty of opportunities to come to terms with and move past them.

This principle explains the tidal wave of fear and doubt that I encountered with the new house, the same one that clients feel when they get into exploring an exciting career idea. Almost every time we attempt to follow our Wisdom into a new realm or on a deeper level, there’s a backlash when we come face-to-face with some of our greatest fears.

And when fear holds us in its sticky web like some kind of captured insect, turning back and staying in what appears to be the safety of the status quo can feel pretty good. Not taking the risk now feels open, spacious, and calming. Falling back into our familiar habits can seem pretty gosh-darned wise.

It becomes important, then, at this point in our Inner Wisdom studies, to be able to distinguish between the sensations of true guidance and the temporary relief that comes from avoiding something scary or falling back into the familiarity of an old (but unhelpful) pattern.

It takes time and observation to learn the difference. This is like the PhD of Inner Wisdom education, and those usually take what—approximately 102 years based on what my friends who have them say? The point is, try to be patient with yourself. I’ve also adopted the general rule of thumb that I have to talk to at least three people who are wiser than me before abandoning a course of action that previously felt like wisdom.

Feeling the Fear, Trusting the Wisdom

The three wise people I spoke to about the house didn’t seem to share my newfound fear that everything good in my life would turn to dust if I moved forward with the purchase. I also noticed that in those rare moments when I had some relief from the terror and felt slightly more grounded, I still felt excited and energized by the idea of moving forward with it.

So we closed on the house last week. Though I know by now that I can trust my Inner Wisdom, I still obsessed over the budget a few more times, tried to solve every problem we might encounter in advance, and made backup plans for my backup plans. Hey, that’s just what I do.

Which leads me to a final PhD-level concept: Trusting your Inner Wisdom doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing affair. I’ve come a long way in terms of following my intuition, but as you can see in the house example, part of me trusts, and part of me still doesn’t. The part that doesn’t is going to want me to fall back into old habits that make me feel safe (though I know by now they don’t actually accomplish much in that regard). If it helps calm me down, there’s nothing wrong with doing it, as long as I realize that’s what’s going on and participate with eyes wide open.

Because the part of me that trusts is growing. And the world is already a much freer place because of it.


***The Fine Print:

This isn’t to say that if you listen to your Inner Wisdom you’ll always get everything you crave, things will always go the way you want, or you won’t face any unexpected challenges. This isn’t Manifestation, which can so easily become about listening to ego once again. When tuning in to Inner Wisdom, I find that it’s best to let go of my ideas about particular outcomes and trust that while things may not turn out as I imagine, they’ll result in the best possible scenario for everyone involved. That may not sound very reassuring, but I can also add that in my experience, if you follow your Inner Wisdom, you’ll find plenty of options for taking care of your needs, far more opportunities for creating joy, the ability to share your most powerful gifts with the world, and the promise of serving a greater purpose even when you have no idea what that may be.

Want Help Hearing Your Inner Wisdom?

I offer individual and group coaching programs at various levels of investment that can help you get your PhD in Inner Wisdom and work through the fear that likes to lurk on the other side of it.  

Over to You

When have you followed your Inner Wisdom, and what came of it?

Please share in the comments below. You might just inspire someone else to trust their intuition.

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.


“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.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

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