A Father Guides His Child
Dumbo’s Feather, It’s Loss, and the Discovery of Personal Strength
Where do we turn for strength? Do we look outside ourselves or find inner strength?
The Disney movie Dumbo, familiar to many of us, is about strength. A baby elephant is born with very big ears. When the other animals tease him, his mother goes berserk in his defense and winds up in a jail wagon at the edge of the circus. Little Dumbo, already an outcast and now without his mother, makes friends with Timothy Q. Mouse, a circus mouse who convinces him that he can do a high jump and even use his enormous ears to fly—when he holds a magic feather in his trunk.
But one day while flying high above the tree tops, he loses his grip on the feather. He begins to fall. The mouse whispers urgently in his ear, “You can fly! You don’t need the feather!” Dumbo believes him and skims away from the ground, saving himself and Timothy. From then on, Dumbo has confidence in his own ability.
Many of us have lucky charms or talismans, objects we trust to keep us safe. Like the Biblical figure Sampson, hippies believed long hair gave them power, while others have had lucky pennies, rabbit feet, and gems with magical powers. The Dumbo story is fun and a meaningful parable—for those who have ears to hear, much less fly.
Beyond objects, humankind has trusted innumerable prayers and beliefs that put the power outside the person. In Sunday School we sang, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong. We are weak, but He is strong.” I’m sure it was meant to be comforting. After all, we were small. But we were more interested in being big. Didn’t we show anyone willing to watch all that we could do? We could bike and swim, win at checkers, and play a trumpet solo in the school concert. We had learned to make biscuits or get the cow in and milk her. Children can feel their power and are only biding their time until they are big enough to use it.
The more insidious intent of the Sunday School song was to indoctrinate us early into "believing in Jesus" so we would behave and go to heaven. It was a particular tenant of our church that we were not to think our own thoughts or to question given dogma. One sad day one of my sisters told me that she was going to hell because she had doubted. I could not reassure her. All the power was outside of us.
To trust outside strength while abandoning our own is a trap. No matter what our beliefs, they should include a sense that we are strong and able. When I was a baby I refused to walk without holding onto someone’s fingers. One day my aunt placed a clothespin in each of my hands and I walked steadily across the room. I had believed the power was in the “fingers” when I was fully able to walk on my own. She had helped me past a mental barrier.
My childhood church believed in submission and found personal confidence arrogant. We sang, “Not my will but Thine.” This works when the posture of submission restrains negative reactions. But submission goes awry when we fail to act with our own true strength—and it goes badly astray when we force children to give up self confidence. Our elders could not differentiate between actions based in strength and bad re-actions, which come from weakness. They suffered from a fear that they were flawed, inadequate. No one was able to notice a simple truth: people like those who are friendly and treat them right. These are things anyone can do.
I know now that no one is born flawed. Worrying about our flaws is what does the damage. Many an old time preacher, secretly terrified of damnation, spoke loud and long against Satan, yet was so forceful and judgmental that he personified the devil. No doubt he had been more genuine when he was two—before the culture nailed his spirit down.
Parenting handbooks from two hundred years ago advised parents to “break” a child before the age of two, so early that he or she would not remember ever having had a will. Children can be full of high spirits. This exuberance offends parents who have themselves been broken and denied their will. But the answer is not to place yet another generation in the same trap. Instead we should respect joyful good spirits, guiding and teaching but not robbing children of the confidence that is their birthright.
In the Dumbo story, a flock of crows discover the baby elephant high in a tree fast asleep, Timothy curled up asleep in Dumbo’s cap. After Dumbo wakes up and flies away, another crow arrives and is told of the strange sight. He says, “I didn’t see it. I only heard. But just to be sociable, I’ll take your word.” Like that crow, quite a few of us have believed things at one time or another just to be sociable. At a humorous and lighthearted level, this is a harmless game. When someone tells me to make a wish before I blow out my birthday candles, and don't tell what I wished or it won't come true, I play along. But being sociable can be a much more serious matter if it means choosing between your community and yourself. The community in which I grew up was a monoculture. Either you spoke Baptist or you didn't communicate, which meant you had neither communion nor community. Yet it is likely that learning to trust your own mind is critical to finding personal power.
A man was once accosted by angry townies who tried to take him down and cut his hair. He got away with his long hair. If they had succeeded, would he have been able to look at his shorn image in the mirror and yet shrug and retain his power? Anyone who has placed trust in a specific object or idea may lose that “feather” and suddenly need to believe in their own power. The power is in us. It is not arrogant to know this. Furthermore, it is preferable to practice personal power all along. Still, if we must we can find it in difficult straits like Dumbo,
Knowing our power will not ruin us. Confident people are often humble, kind, and protective of others. But when the situation arises, they can do what needs to be done.