My father’s father drank a lot, couldn’t hold down a job, and was physically abusive to his wife. So, at the tender age of twelve, my father quit school and started doing odd jobs for the neighbors in the tenement building where the family lived. In this way he was able to pay the household bills and keep a watchful eye on his dad’s behavior. By the time he went off to fight in WWII, his mother was gone and his father passed not long after.
What To Do When a Monster Blocks Your Path
My father was not a great storyteller. Perhaps telling stories felt frivolous in a life as challenging as the one he led. His reputation in our neighborhood was based on his energy, his willingness to help others. He worked in a factory when I was growing up, the night shift, but during the day and on weekends he still did odd jobs for neighbors. Doing for others was ingrained in him. It was what he learned in his formative years, when other kids his age were working on algebraic equations.
My father had one story though, and because it was the only one from his childhood, I took it very seriously.
One of his jobs at the apartments where he grew up was to carry the trash in and out for several of the neighbors. Because he had so many “clients,” and because the depository for the trash was quite far from the tenements where they lived, he usually finished after dark. And as the landlord was not one for replacing light bulbs, my father had to find his way back through his building with only the illumination that seeped out from under other occupants’ doors.
Once he reached his floor, there was one very long and very dark corridor that he had to pass through. It was “L” shaped. It took him all along the south side of the building and around the corner to the east side. And in that corner, that dark junction between south and east, there lived a monster!
Even though it was nearly pitch black in that corner, my father’s approach was so slow that he was able to piece together a description of the monster over time. One of his eyeballs dangled, he knew that. The monster had open wounds over his face and torso, and from these wounds bubbled out not blood but some kind of thick demonic goo. His expression was beyond fierce. And, worst of all, he held a dagger in one hand, raised over his right shoulder.
As soon as my father was in striking distance, he broke into a sprint and didn’t look back. By the time he reached his apartment, he was too far away to see the monster anymore. It was only a dark corner again, like any other. There was no way to know if the monster had struck out at him and missed, or if the monster was waiting for a particular moment in time to do his dirty work.
This went on for a long time. It was not the kind of thing a tough kid from a tough neighborhood could share with other boys. It was certainly not the kind of thing my father could share with his father, who would have thought it was just an excuse to do less work. And he couldn’t tell his mother either, because her life was sad enough. So his plight continued: every evening my father collected and deposited the day’s trash, and every night he encountered the monster on his way back. He was a big strong boy, afraid of almost nothing, but the sight of the monster was enough to bring him to tears.
One day my father realized that if he didn’t solve this problem himself it was never going to go away. So he made up his mind that that night he would reach out and touch the monster, poke him right in the stomach. If the monster grabbed him and killed him, so be it. It was a better alternative than going on like this, night after night, living in fear.
My father always said that reaching out to touch the monster was the hardest thing he ever did. Considering the long list of hardships that plagued him all through his life, this was quite a statement. He started down the south hall—walking slowly as he always did, he and the monster staring at each other, the monster with the dagger held high over his right shoulder and ready to plunge. But when my father got to the point where he would usually break and run, he closed his eyes tight and shot his arm out in front of him instead. And to his amazement, his hand went right through the space where the monster had been only seconds before and hit the wall. The monster was gone! He never made a reappearance.
I told this story to both my sons when they were small. And while it might be a simple story, they both agreed it made it easier for them to do what had to be done when they encountered situations that made them feel afraid. In fact, I’ve had to reach out and touch the monster myself more than a few times over the course of my life.
Here’s what I see as the “take-aways” from my father’s story. If you have a monster at the end of your hallway, maybe they will mean something to you too:
- Sometimes what looks like a monster to you might not seem like a monster to anyone else. Other people might not “get” what the big deal is. And then when you do finally confront the monster, their reaction might be “so what?” Don’t let other people diminish your accomplishments. You can only understand how hard it is to reach out and touch a monster if you’ve had to do so yourself.
- You are going to feel better once you confront the monster. I can tell you that I confronted a huge monster once, and when it was over, I grew wings and began to fly. There is no better time to set new goals that right after a monster confrontation, while your head is still spinning with your achievement and your blood is still pulsing with euphoria.
- Confronting a monster can actually change your life.