Heroic Moves or Small Consistent Moves?

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The following piece is excerpted from my collection of teaching stories, Coyote and Friends.

Snake Struggles to Shed His Skin

There was once a young rattlesnake who lived where the 5,000 foot peaks angle on down to meet the desert. During the winter rains, waterfalls plunge off cliffs and streams race into the canyon. Summer has its own flow. Mountaintop air cools in evening and descends to greet the canyon opening.

Young Snake was so anxious to grow long and strong. He saw older, larger snakes going out to hunt. They returned with prey vital for the needs of the nest. It fed the little snakes and the older ones too. He begged to go along. The largest snake shook his mighty rattle and said, “Young Snake, listen to this. What do you have?” Young Snake shook his tail, but it produced only a feeble sound. The older snake laughed, “Young Snake, you are nothing but a worm. Grow up and then you can join us.” A worm? That hurt his pride. He knew he was growing, but was anxious, impatient. How could he prove himself if he couldn’t go off with the others? But, it was unthinkable for him to go hunting by himself. Too scary. Young Snake was depressed all morning.

Then it happened — the very thing his elders had promised. He could feel that his skin was too small. Young Snake was excited like you can’t believe. He knew he needed to shed. He did as his elders had instructed and retreated to the bush to work his way out of that skin. He imagined he’d be able to slip right out and catch up with the others on their hunt that very day. But it didn’t go the way he hoped. He managed to pull his tail out of the tip of the skin covering it. He produced a tear and his mid-section was out too. But he was completely spent. No fast exit today. The struggle took him into the night. He wanted to be safe and warm in his nest not out there in the open. He was exhausted and cold. Next morning, the sun warmed him into action, and on he struggled. It’s a dangerous time for a snake in this predicament. Neither out nor in, unable to flee or strike, he was vulnerable. And he didn’t like it one bit. He struggled on into the afternoon, angry that he’d missed another chance to hunt with the big snakes.

By this time the sun was lower in the sky. He was just about to pull his head out of the last big clinging piece when he turned and looked back at the old skin. There it was in its patterned splendor: the diamond shapes so finely wrought in something so thin, yet so resilient. The sun shone through the thin panels with a soft amber glow. A breeze made the old skin flutter but put a shock of cold on his new skin. Ouch! That didn’t feel good at all! He started having second thoughts. “Gee, maybe this isn’t such a good idea to get out of this skin after all. Look how nice it looks. My new skin looks wrinkly raw and it is way too sensitive. I can never hunt with it hurting like this.” He fidgeted and fussed and tried to slip back into the old skin. Should he push down with his tail, or try to fold his midsection back in? As much as he tried, he just couldn’t do it. And, again he was exhausted.

Just then Coyote trotted along. Coyote looked down at Snake and teased, “Yo, brother Snake, what kind of dance were you doing? That’s no Rattler’s Rumba. What kinda motion is it, anyway?” Snake turned his head up with pain on his face, hoping the look would say it all, but decided he would confess. “Coyote, it is my shedding time. I was just about out of my old skin when I saw its beauty and felt naked without it. My new skin is so worm like, ugly and sensitive. I just don’t know whether I’m better off with my old or my new skin.”

“Hmmmmm … “ Coyote paused a few seconds. “Well, I don’t know if you should go back to your old skin or get into your new skin, but you’d better do one or the other pretty darn quick because there’s a bunch of Two-legs headed right your way. And, they’ll be so happy to stomp all over your sorry self. Do you know what Two-legs are, Young Snake?”

“Yes, Coyote, I know that Two-legs are humans,” Snake replied with annoyance.

Coyote gave Snake a serene smile and sauntered off feeling so good to have helped another creature in need.

Snake heard a human voice only one echo away. He took this news with a jolt and lurched right out of his old skin. Not only that, he slithered his sensitive new skin over rough gravel and sand. He worked his way onto solid rock to leave no trail. Ouch! Sharp edges were tearing at his new skin. He headed straight for the canyon wall and pulled himself into a narrow crack. It wasn’t deep, but it was thin and, with the lowering light, Snake prayed his new skin would blend in with granite, making him invisible. Actually these thoughts came later. Snake jammed himself up into the crevice as tight as he could. Then he heard boots scraping on sandy rocks. Not a soothing sound. His heart was racing.

Up came the humans, just like Coyote said. Three of ‘em. And they were carrying on with Two-leg talk. Just before they passed on through, the younger one let out a whoop. “Grandpa! Look at this! A rattler skin! Can I keep it? Can I keep it?”

Illustration Josh Cochran

The other Two-legs turned and rejoined the youngster at the side of the wash. The elder Two-leg squattted down. “Lessee there … well, it’s small enough, but a mighty fine specimen anyway. Sure, you keep it.”

And what does all this mean? Well, sometimes a true friend will act like smarty-pants Coyote, but you’d better listen up. And sometimes it is time to let go of what you thought you needed. Someone else might need it more than you — even if that someone is a dangerous adversary.

Maybe you’ve been in a workshop that promoted big, dramatic, heroic changes. And, possibly with a skillful facilitator, effective workshop content, and the support of the other participants in an emotionally charged atmosphere, you did make big moves. Good for you.

The good news about these experiences is that we can greatly expand our self-image of what we are capable of. However, we may find it difficult to sustain the dramatic move. When we lose ground, we may be tempted to berate, judge or even punish ourselves. That would be unfortunate.

Neuroscience informs us that as much as we want change, we fear it. And this fear is more than “psychological,” it is hard-wired in us.

This observation forms the basis of a practice involving small, consistent gradual change. Japanese companies made stunning advances in manufacturing quality using these principles, which they call kaizen. The idea is that starting with a very small change in behavior will not trigger the threat/fear response. A string of consistent small successes trains the brain and nervous system, building self-esteem and confidence. To learn more, see the work by Dr. Robert Maurer.

I find that making small moves, a practice sometimes called “microscopic change” is, indeed, effective, especially when I’ve been blocked by resistance, fear and avoidance.

However, I also believe that both heroic moves and small moves are appropriate in their seasons. I find they are often intermixed. A period of small moves may be necessary to build a foundation, to prepare me for a very large move. Sometimes, to fulfill a deep prayer, a very dramatic, possibly even dangerous, move is called for.

If you read On My Road to Heaven, you’ll see that author Ozzie Delgadillo had a personality geared for big, dramatic moves. He made many bold moves and faced big crises. Yet his greatest achievements came from simple, consistent small actions.

In the story about Snake, with whom do you identify?

The young boy claims the recently shed skin as a trophy. How would the other characters value or appreciate that skin?

Sometimes it takes a crisis to provoke significant change in me. There may be a regrettable cost associated with the crisis. And so, during or after the crisis, I might chide myself, telling myself that if I had started sooner on my change program, I could have avoided the crisis.

Maybe. But what if the crisis, itself, was part of the answer to my prayer?

Learn More About Coyote and Friends

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