Years ago, when I was a counselor serving children of divorced families, one young man I worked with stood out. I adored Devin, and as is typical of many children where the parents are in conflict with one another, he felt so torn between the two. He always felt the need to hide his true feelings from both of them.
During one of our sessions, I decided to reach into my play therapist bag of tools intended to help kids get in touch with what is buried inside them. I put out tubs of new Play-Doh and invited him to use his creative imagination to build whatever he wanted to build.
Devin quietly went about choosing the colors carefully
He paused to ask me if it would be alright if he mixed the colors together to create the blended hues he really wanted to use. With a smile and a nod of my head, I could see him light up at the prospect of not having to stay within the lines and to mix to his heart’s content.
His small creation began to take life
I held the space of quiet and calm for him. He spent the better part of the hour working the clay. What emerged was no bigger than 2 inches but had more detail than a DaVinci masterpiece – and carried at least as much meaning.
Devin proudly showed me his beautifully designed turtle. As I asked him to tell me more about it, tears welled up in his eyes.
“I am the turtle,” he said.
“I need to live with a hard shell around me all the time to keep from getting hurt. Whenever it gets too hard or hurts too much, I stick my head back inside my shell to keep all the painful things from getting to me.”
“Well, Turtle,” I said, “I certainly can understand why you need to do that, and I know it is never fun to get hurt. But is there anything you wish could be different?”
“Yes,” he said. “I would like to not be afraid and to be able to run more and laugh more and not always worry about keeping myself closed off. “
It was, clearly, a breakthrough moment.
Over the next few months, Devin and I shared many wonderful times where he learned to be more his true self – where he learned to laugh more and to protect himself without hiding in his shell.
That Christmas, I received a card from Devin. He had hiked to the top of Mt. McKinley in Alaska with his mom and included a photo: a beaming twelve year old standing tall atop the mountain, clearly sticking his neck out.
Devin was a great teacher of mine. Thinking of our time together also brings me to think about where in my life I tend to hide in my shell, afraid of getting hurt or being rejected. There is a twelve year old inside all of us who hesitates to risk and take the leap to let go.
But the joy lies in the freedom of letting go, in taking the chance to climb to the top of the mountain.
What about you? Have you climbed any mountains lately? Trust me, the view is so much better from the mountain top than it is from inside the shell.