The Little Engine

Until now, I have not been treated well, not by myself and not by the circumstances and conditions I have chosen to accept as real.Caring, page 196

This sentence jumped out at me this morning. Or rather, something in how I was listening took a step closer, as when a phrase at a nearby table catches our attention and our ears “perk up”. Probably what I noticed first was the reversal of my usual way of looking at a perceived call for change: where I am usually the one who feels forced to do something, not the one suffering waves of unfriendly treatment.

But then I also noticed that two sources of that uncaring treatment were being invoked. One was a theme that plays in my mind every day. The other was the voice of something I pushed aside years ago—which now saw a chance of being finally invited in.

The voices of both those elements were inviting me to pay attention.

The perception “that I have not been treated well” (by myself)—and that I judge myself in ways that I would not inflict on another person—is familiar enough that I have made a sustained effort to be more caring towards myself. I have actively worked on treating myself with kindness, knowing that I can’t otherwise be of much use to anyone else. The logic is irrefutable: If I treat myself harshly, I won’t even know what kindness feels like.

There’s a children’s story, “The Little Engine that Could”, where a locomotive feels itself incapable of pulling a freight car of Christmas toys up the mountain. But it’s clear that the basic issue is that it can’t find inside itself enough confidence to even try.

The second voice that arose when I read the quote above was about circumstances and conditions; this is a topic lamentably familiar to my dissatisfied mind. This voice was what made me lean in a little closer, as if I was hearing a snatch of conversation a few tables away at a restaurant. Its unfamiliar insight, about a familiar concern, was that, when I accept the preestablished reality of circumstances, I am treating myself unkindly.

This is not a question about what exists and what doesn’t exist, but an insight into how I interpret the conditions of my life. When I judge that perceived difficulties are unquestionably real features of the regime in which I am living, I am like “The Little Engine that Could”; who, when Christmas toys–stranded on a siding– implored it to pull them up the mountain to a village where children eagerly awaited their arrival, felt deeply intimidated.

I have to wonder why this particular story is coming into my mind as I ponder the sentence quoted above. I think it may be because—of all the stories I read to my kids—this one is most clearly about the importance of kindness, and of nurturing in ourselves the courage to believe that it is in our fundamental nature to be helpful.

This story also invokes another sad reality: that our unconfident self-images can leave us sidelined, rather like that freight car full of toys stranded on a railyard siding.

The Little Engine doesn’t believe it has the strength to pull a freight car up the side of a mountain. Afterall, it has never left the railyard before. Its image of its capabilities is confined to the narrow compass of the switching yard. In a similar way, when I think of doing anything that would require me to participate in a wider world than my familiar one, a screen of impossibility quickly arises before me, stretching from horizon to horizon. In the face of such challenges, the confidence of caring can be the first casualty.

The above quote appears under the subheading “The Now of Care” and the message is clear: now is the time to care for ourselves if we are ever to be a helpful presence in this life. It is of no use to tell ourselves that we must work on our capacities first, in order to be able to jump in later. That is not the kind of time in which caring lives. Caring comes before the thoughts and self-images that tell us what we can and cannot do.

What is sticking around in my mind, like a burr picked up on a pant leg during a tramp through the woods, is that at the core of my intimidations in daily life, is my conviction that challenges are part of an overall reality that is far too global for me to affect locally.

I want to question this kind of reaction to circumstances. Why do circumstances so often feel too overwhelming for me to address them? Perhaps I still have more to learn from the experience of “The Little Engine that Could”.

In the children’s story, once the little engine agrees to give it a try, the enthusiasm and encouragement of the toys themselves become an important force. Their encouragement flows into the small locomotive as it struggles up the final gradient to the top of the mountain. The toys go from chanting one mantra–“We know you can, we know you can”—to chanting one of celebration as they pull into the station in the small mountain community–“We knew you could, we knew you could”. In their shared investment in this positive outcome, everyone is a beneficiary in their grand adventure.

Could it be that we are all in the same boat–riding the same train of life? Once we hitch ourselves to the circumstances that life has given us, only then can we notice that in that very engagement, we have been joined by allies who were already there waiting for us to climb on board.

2 comments to “The Little Engine”
  1. Such an insightful take on the ways we limit what we are capable of doing and being. And how we can recognize the pattern and then choose to move beyond it. Thanks, Michael!

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