"The Tale of Despereaux" is a story about a mouse who never learned to be afraid.
That's a problem, you see, because mice are supposed to be fearful. Call it a social-cultural self-defense mechanism, perhaps the idea being that scared mice can better avoid danger, the point is, Despereaux was anything but.
Because of this, from the moment of his birth, Despereaux's natural disposition in life is viewed as strange, insubordinate, and most of all, a threat.
"His eyes are open," his mother says apprehensively, as she looks at her new baby boy for the first time.
"He isn't cowering…" she trembles. "He's looking right at us."
The fear in her voice is palpable.
"Don't worry," the tribal shaman / doctor / elder says with hopeful confidence, "he'll learn to cower. They all do in time."
But he doesn't. And not for lack of trying.
Fast forward to middle school…
The other school children had recently passed their cowering test with flying colors. Despereaux, on the other hand, failed the test.
(he thought the drawing of the carving knife was "beautiful," not scary, to the chagrin of his teacher)
"Despereaux, why do you think you're in school?" the headmaster asks the young mouse.
"To learn," Despereaux replies.
"To learn what?"
"To learn how to be a mouse, sir."
"That is correct. And you can't be a mouse if you don't learn to be afraid," the headmaster instructs.
"Oh Despereaux, there are so many wonderful things in life to be afraid of if you just learn how scary they are."
Realizing that Despereaux still isn't quite getting it, and that the school system by itself can't seem to inculcate the type of fear they're hoping for, the headmaster gets his family involved.
Despereaux has an older brother ("as timid as the day is long" according to his father), and so the headmaster recommends Despereaux's older brother act as a guide and mentor in the way of fearfulness.
"Sometimes, they just need to see the older ones do it," the headmaster explains. "No one starts out afraid."
Unfortunately, the plan backfires.
Instead of embracing the fears of his brother (or family, teacher, headmaster, fellow students, and society at large), Despereaux just...keeps doing his thing.
And he ends up doing something that is absolutely forbidden in mouse utopia:
Despereaux interacts with a human being (without a mask or hand sanitizer).
His father, scared about what the Mouse Council would do to him if they found out what happened, hands his son over to the council for trial.
"Destiny is a funny thing," the narrator says, "we go out to meet it, and we don't always know that we are."
So Despereaux goes before the council, and they list out his infractions:
"Refused training as a mouse.
Refused to respect the will and guidance of elder mice.
Repeatedly engaged in bold and un-meek behavior.
Triggered, willfully, not less than 17 moustraps.
Had personal contact with…with…with a human being."
The mob gasps.
"Despereaux Tilling," the eldest elder says in his final declaration, "our laws are here to protect us and our way of life. And when one of our citizens strays from that way of life, he becomes a threat to us all."
The elder proceeds to banish Despereaux to the dungeons of Dor "from which no mouse and no light has ever escaped."
And so Despereaux is remanded to Hovis, the blind threadmaster, who is to lower him down into the pit.
They have one last conversation before the descent.
"So you're the brave one?" Hovis asks.
"I guess," Despereaux says sincerely.
"It's good, it'll carry well down there. Wear it proudly. It's no shame."
He fastens the rope around Despereaux's waste.
"Courage, right?" Hovis asks.
"And truth. And Honor," Despereaux replies.
"Good," Hovis says right before sending him into the darkness...
"But especially courage."
Courage, Darkness, and Light
Right now, many people around the world are experiencing darkness.
Doesn't take more than a few seconds of thumbing through Instagram or walking through your local urban downtown to see it:
Their posture gives it away.
And when you recognize it, you know what it means:
An everpresent reminder that everyone around you thinks they could die at any moment.
Listen, I get it.
Death is scary. Experiencing a life or death event is physically and mentally draining. It takes everything out of you. Likewise, being in a situation where death feels ever-present can be its own mental burden. Over time, it's exhausting.
And that's true whether you're worried about your own life or someone else's.
Before every security mission I ran in downtown Bagdhad...before every time I stepped in the boxing ring...before every time I jumped out of the helicopter…I recognized the fragility of it all. That in a moment it could be gone.
At moments like this, it can feel like there are only two paths one can take:
Either headstrong ignorance, blindly ignoring threats while you piledrive your way through life…
...or in headless panic, desperately believing everything your told.
Both are pretty terrible options if you ask me.
That's because both are reactions to fear.
And because of that, they miss the real threat.
The real threat is that thing that is ever-present in the story of "The Tale of Despereaux," and it's the same thing you may spot in your own life if you look hard enough...
The real threat is:
To live a life that's less than you're worth.
To throw in the towel before it's too soon...to bury your talents in the ground instead of building something worthwhile......to give up on the altruistic dream of a better life for your family, your community, and yourself, because someone taught you all the wonderful things to be scared about.
So I recommend a third option…the same option Despereaux chose before he even knew he had; the one that seemingly caused his banishment, but in reality, is what ensured he would get through to the end, in spite of the darkness:
Have the courage to draw your own map. (but before you ask someone for help drawing your map for you, remember the wise words of everyone's favorite high school Moral Philosophy and History teacher, Jean Rasczak: "Figuring things out for yourself is the only freedom anyone really has. Use that freedom.")
Have the courage to become antifragile. Start small. Start one day at a time. Grow through trust.
Have the courage to stay on the path. If it's not your concern, it's not your concern. Stay. On. The. Path.
But most of all: have courage.
Because where fear grows, darkness spreads.
And we need a few more lights in this world.
Tom "lighting it up" Morkes
P.s. In spite of what others would distract you into believing, tough times are the best times to get working on yourself, your home, your family, and your work. That includes writing. And that's why I think there's never been a better time to invest in your writing and sharing your ideas with the world. First, because there's no barrier to entry…so if you can read this, you can publish great ideas yourself. #winnerwinnerchickendinner Plus, I think writing is the best way to draw your own map, become antifragile, and will help you stay on the path even when there's an avalanche of shiny pennies coming your way, hoping to block your path. Case in point, If i didn't start this blog and newsletter 7+ years ago I don't know where I'd be right now. Probably play acting 12 Monkeys like my life depended on it. Luckily, I invested in myself and my writing many, many moons ago, and now my ideas have helped thousands of people around the world… Your ideas could do the same. So if you have a book in you (or at least a blog post) that you can't wait to share, but you'd like a path, a plan, and a community to support you along your path, check out the brand new Write Publish Profit 3.0 from Infostack. Over $4,600+ worth of tools and resources for only $49. I've shared this deal 3 years in a row, and this year it's better than it's ever been (and over 95% new, with some winning return contributors, like ProWritingAid, AuthorCats, and more). Click here to check it out. And speaking of Write Publish Profit 3.0 -> did you know "The Tale of Despereaux" was written by Kate DiCamillo, a 2004 Newbery Medal Winner, and that Kate had this to say about one of the books inside Write Publish Profit 3.0: "Revision Power is a writing book like no other . . . joyful, exuberant, witty, and wise. It manages to be many things at once: a celebration of language, an examination of its mysteries, and an invitation for writers of every ilk to pick up their pens and join the party. Wonderful." Click here to get your copy of Write Publish Profit 3.0 which includes a copy of "Revision Power" the book endorsed by "The Tale of Despereaux" author Kate DiCamillo. And that's how you make a blog post come full circle. 💯🐲⚡
I love this! This is the same reason I love fellow mouse, Reepicheep, and also Tookish hobbits (and Bagginses who are scared of their minds but still go forward because they've got some Took in them). They don't let fear stop them. What inspirations! Glad to have another light to live by with this tale too. God bless you, Tom, for being another light in dark places 🙂
Thanks Anne Marrie. Gotta revisit Chronicles of Narnia...probably exploding at the seem with practical insights for todays times (that's what I love about great fiction, it's true across time).
This is absolutely wonderful. You really are 'lighting it up' with these inspiring words 🙂 Thank you
Thank you. And I appreciate what you do too. Keep it up! 🐲⚡
I loved this blog post. Because I love the idea of courage. I know navigating the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for millions of people. While I've been writing for years, I've always done it around a day job. I lacked courage - not to write, but to market and promote the writing. At the end of 2019, I knew I had to change my attitude around marketing, and have the courage to act. And things are slowly transforming.
But most of all, COVID-19 helped me to realign on what matters most. I had the courage to double down on my writing, taking full advantage of the lockdown (I live in Toronto, Canada), to finish the rewrite of one book (and send it off for editing) and to write another (which I sent this week for editing; fastest I've ever written a book). It took courage. Because I'm not willing to settle. I'm not wiling to 'live a life that's less than I'm worth.' Thanks for your insights, Tom. Be well and stay safe!
I love it Marcus. Keep it up and keep going. The world needs more courageous people.