For those of you who also grew up watching The Neverending Story (1984), you’ll remember the scene when Atreyu must pass through the First Gate on his way to the Southern Oracle.
Atreyu scrambles down the hillside, eager to face his first test. Perched above him, Engywook warns that “the Sphinxes can see straight into your heart.”
If “someone who does not feel his own worth tries to pass by,” their eyes open. Light shafts from those all-seeing eyes, and the Sphinxes sear the person to ash.
As a child, I thought this would be easy peasy.
“Let’s see what he really thinks of himself,” Engywook says earlier in the scene when a knight rides up to the gate.
“Ha!” My six-year-old self thought. “I got this. I’m pretty awesome, and those Sphinxes can’t touch me.”
But I hadn’t been through junior high yet. Or high school.
I hadn’t yet left Mormonism–and been shunned for it by men and women who’d helped bring me up.
I wasn’t estranged from my parents.
And by the time I hit 30, I knew what was meant by “baggage”. And I realized everyone near my age–and older–had some. Whole luggage trolleys full of it.
And suddenly those Sphinxes were looking pretty damn scary.
Still, I thought I was safe, sitting at my desk, writing imaginary stories. Far from the glare of those fiery eyes and the test of my own self-worth.
The thing that The Neverending Story didn’t tell me is that the Sphinxes’ eyes are everywhere, and the sense of our own worthiness determines not only the course of our own adventures but the quality of our relationships and the risks we are willing to take.
But I’ve learned something from people as disparate as choreographer Amy O’Neal and sociology researcher Brene Brown. There is power in facing the fear that maybe I’m not good enough. Power in being honest. Power in taking my not-quite-right-I’m-a-little-off-today self into the dance studio or to my writing desk or onto the bus–allowing myself to feel that vulnerability and breathe in it.
As Brene Brown put it, “lean into the discomfort of the work.” Those Sphinxes were just the first gate. Finding a sense of self-worth is only the first step towards a braver life, rich with creativity and connection.