Had his childhood dream not been scorched, my father would’ve made a dashing world explorer.
Instead, he became a businessman, and lived to regret it.
At age seven, right before World War II, he escaped Germany and moved to Guatemala to begin his new life at my grandparent’s estate, which, at the time, led out to grassy fields, steep ravines, streams, rivers, and roaring waterfalls. It was every boy’s fantasyland.
Precocious and inquisitive, Dad learned to read at age four and turned into a bookworm with an insatiable appetite for learning and discovery. He loved science fiction and the Tarzan of the Apes book series, devouring them all, more than once.
To ease Dad’s transition into his new environment, my grandfather bought him a horse and two dogs. Thereon, every afternoon after school, he’d set off on his mount to explore the vast wildlands of this fantastic realm. From a high point, he could see a shimmering blue lake, far in the distance, backdropped by four imposing volcanoes — two in permanent, fiery upheaval. His favorite resting spot was a waterfall plunging thirty feet into a crystalline pool teeming with crayfish he loved to catch. He’d stop to swim and play with his dogs, always on the lookout for lianas by which to swing from tall tree to tall tree like Tarzan.
Guatemala was once ruled by the Maya, one of ancient history’s most advanced civilizations. The fields across which my father roamed were thus strewn with obsidian arrowheads, jade beads, stone axe heads, and pottery fragments which he collected and treasured all his life.
These wild experiences, and the books he read, filled my father’s young imagination with a stirring sense of adventure. By the time he was ten, he yearned to climb the highest mountains, trek across the most inhospitable jungles, and draw maps to guide other explorers. Swept-up in his excitement, he wrote about his dream, and, late one evening, waited for his father to return from work to share his budding aspiration.
I never liked my grandfather. He was cold and stern, stiff like stone and creaking wood. It wasn’t until he died that Dad told me how the old man used to drag him down to a basement and kick a ball at him with such force that it often bruised him. “Be a man! Toughen up! Don’t cry!” he’d yell at his son. My grandfather also worked long hours, so Dad hardly saw him. My grandfather held the notion that a man’s identity is solely defined by his work.
That night, taking Dad’s story from his hesitant, outstretched hands, the old man adjusted his wire-rim glasses and started reading. Dad, meanwhile, looked up at him with a boyish sparkle in his eyes, waiting for his blessing.
Done reading, my grandfather looked down and scoffed:
“Tsk! So a nobody, that’s what you’re saying… a bum, basically. Is that all you aspire to?”
Before Dad could shake his head and explain, the old man’s callous fist crushed his dream and threw the crumpled paper on the floor. “You will write no more nonsense!” He thundered and walked away.
Meet the Dream-Scorching Dragon, who’s deadly fire that fateful day denied the world a dashing explorer. Following in his father’s footsteps, Dad became a businessman instead and lost the sparkle in his eye.
I have two possible explanations for what occurred.
First, that my grandfather thought a man could only earn a living and provide for a family by holding a “respectable” job, and feared climbing mountains and drawing maps would lead Dad to failure. In other words, he crushed my father’s dream out of love, wanting to protect him from hardship later in life.
Second, he was jealous, and wasn’t about to let his son bask in heroic limelight. As a boy, he too might have yearned to go on a wild adventure… on his own hero’s journey, but couldn’t, for whatever reason, Perhaps some other Dream-Scorching Dragon stopped him in his tracks.
Whether A, B, or both, not receiving a father’s blessing is one of the deepest and most devastating wounds a child can suffer.
There are too many people like that lurking in our midst. People who lack the faith and audacity to slay the Dragon and give time and power to their true calling — no matter how unconventional, unprofitable, or impractical — so become Dream-Scorching Dragons themselves.
German philosopher Nietzsche knew them well:
“Ah! I have known noble ones who lost their
Highest hope. And then they disparaged all
Then lived shamelessly in
Temporary pleasures, and beyond the
Day had hardly an aim.
Then broke the wings of their spirit.
Once they thought of becoming heroes;
But sensualists are they now.
A trouble and a terror
Is the hero to them.” — ‘Zarathustra’
Three years ago, I woke up from a 40-year lie and upended my life to pursue my boyhood dream of becoming a writer. Soon after declaring my intention, a horde of Dream-Scorching Dragons lined up ahead of my path and began to blow their disheartening fire. Not least, my father, who, while often my most ardent cheerleader, also spat numbing venom, making me question my sanity. It was, I suppose, a twisted form of payback.
Dream-Scorching Dragons are shapeshifters. Whether with good or bad intent, those closest to you will be the ones most likely to make you hesitate or give up on your dream altogether. They’ll either presume to know what’s best for you, or appeal to your sense of duty to place their interests ahead of your own.
“You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you. What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting. You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.” — Walt Whitman, ‘Song of the Open Road’
It took every ounce of resolve for me to resist the clutch of those outreached hands trying to hold me back. It also took a heavy dose of selfishness… of the good kind I mean, defined by philosopher Alain de Botton as one that involves the courage to give priority to ourselves and our concerns at particular points; the confidence to be forthright about our needs, not in order to harm or reject other people, but in order to serve them in a deeper, more sustained and committed way over the long term.
After all, one cannot fully love others while denying oneself. Only in fullness does one overflow.
If we turn our backs on our aspirations and remain shut within the walls of what appears safe or practical, we will become dead in life… forever haunted by regrets as poet Rainer Maria Rilke poignantly foretold:
“Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.”
I did not wish to remain “inside the dishes and the glasses” leaving it up to my children to do what only I was meant to do. Nor did I want to be like so many fathers who exact on the hides and hearts of their children the ire of their frustrations, the thunderbolts of their distress, the dull ache of their tedious, apathetic existence, and the festering wounds of their unfulfilled desires.
Neither should you.
Answering the call of your true destiny will require a stout heart, self-love, a firm intention, and unwavering resolve.
For some of us, it also requires a touch of madness.
“A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free!” — Nikos Kazantzakis
To arm you for battle against the Dream-Scorching Dragons who will try to hold you back, I give you this weapon, forged by the mighty pen of poet Mary Oliver:
“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do.
Little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Now tell me…
What is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”