Barbara Emrys

Faith in a Feather

I’ve been thinking of Dumbo lately. It began a few days ago, when I was suddenly struck by an old childhood image of the baby elephant with big ears. Once I had that picture in my head I just couldn’t shake it. Images of Dumbo kept haunting me. I saw him sitting pitifully alone within a populated circus community. I saw him making an unlikely friend and rejoicing in the miracle of it. I saw him crying, laughing, often cowering in fear, and sometimes courageously facing his critics. Surprisingly, I saw him develop some kind of immunity to judgment and derision. I saw him dance.
And then I saw him fly.
If you recall, Dumbo was born with ears so big he couldn’t walk without tripping over them. Because of this awkward affliction, he had no skills beyond the ability to make people hoot. When he was ordered to dive into a bucket for the entertainment of the crowd, his friend tried to console him. He speculated that Dumbo’s oversized ears might have aerodynamic properties. They might allow him to fly, or at least fall to the ground slowly. Indeed, if he used them to his advantage, those ears might just make him famous. Now, there was an idea! Maybe this sad little nothing could turn himself into a something.
The idea took hold. The little elephant would silence his critics once and for all. All he had to do was leap off a dizzyingly high platform and glide to the ground. Simple. Let gravity do its job and the ears would do the work. Of course, the big obstacle in all this was Dumbo himself. Quite understandably, he was terrified.
His clever friend solved that problem by handing him a magic feather. As we all know, a nothing doesn’t become a something without putting his faith somewhere. It doesn’t matter where, really. You don’t have to believe in gods or superheroes. An opinion is often enough. Believe in it for a while, and it seems to develop the power to protect and defend you. Without that opinion, there’s just you, naked and human. There’s just you…and what lunatic would put his faith in that?
Dumbo believed so much in the power of that feather that he was able to leap off the platform and do something amazing. He flew. He made graceful spins through the air on his way down to a soft landing. Soon he was known far and wide as the flying elephant, and performed every evening for an eager public. Nobody laughed. Everybody marveled. He was a hit. He was a something.
And then one night he dropped the feather.
We all remember the moral to this story. Dumbo found faith in himself that night and soared through the air without the feather. He no longer depended on encouragement or approval. He flew because he could. He loved because he was alive. He didn’t need a reason to be happy, and he didn’t need a power object to be something. Dumbo was truly something else.
There’s nothing new in this lesson. I’m bringing up old mythologies to remind us what they are for. They all point to truth – awkwardly sometimes, and sometimes without our invitation. But here is the truth again: faith belongs in you. Put down those lovely feathers. Get that pesky mouse out of your ear. Let real power be seen for what it is – naked and human and made of limitless potential.
You really are something else.

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