Here Be Dragons (And Monsters)

Halloween approaches, and we wait with anticipation to see what monsters will lurk in our streets and doorways. We’ve decorated our houses for these creatures, bought them bags and bags of candy, and we will be inquisitive, kind and very appropriately afraid when they ring our doorbells yelling “Trick or treat!”


What might the world be like if we could be so welcoming to our own monsters, the scary dragons of our own internal landscape?

“I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed
Get along with the voices inside of my head.”
             – Rihanna, from Eminem’s The Monster

From the 10th through the 17th centuries, it was common practice for cartographers to draw all manner of dragons, sea serpents and other mythological or fantastical creatures on the uncharted areas of their maps. [Contrary to popular opinion, only one map, the Hunt-Lenox Globe, also contained the phrase “Here be dragons,” but this phrase has come, through the faulty “general knowledge” telephone game, to be associated with these same images.]

These drawings – not only of dragons and serpents, but also of elephants, walruses and lions (all fantastical creatures in that time) – marked the mysterious, unexplored regions of the globe, places where dangerous or evil elements lurked; places to fear and, if at all possible, avoid. And most people did.

But then, wouldn’t you know it, the explorers of that time did the other thing. They got in their ships, sailed around the world, and went directly to these dark places. They faced these dragons, serpents, and other mysterious unknowns head on.

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” – Stephen King


monstersBut let’s face it. We are all, in the complexity of our humanity, sometimes mortifyingly capable of doing bad and stupid things.

I know, I know – most of us do these things from a place of fear or weakness, or out of a sense of self-preservation. But the fact remains that we are fallible creatures who are constantly making pretty spectacular mistakes.

We lie. We cheat. We judge. We hurt those we love. We hurt ourselves, too. And, sometimes, we do these things to the point of destroying the very self we’re trying to preserve.

In short, we all have a dark side, a place of dragons and monsters, where all manner of dangers and evil elements lurk. A place we usually try, if at all possible, to avoid.

And while we’re always learning more about ourselves, and should always, always strive to do and be better, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we believe we will some day achieve a state of grace in which we are perfectly good. This is just not possible. I know because I’ve tried. Holy Hannah, how I’ve tried.

monstersSo here, inside of all of us, be dragons. Maybe permanently. What can we do about them?

I don’t pretend to have many answers here. But I do have some thoughts about a first step.
I think we can start by being brave, like those explorers so many years ago. Instead of avoiding our dark places, we can commit to doing the other thing. We can climb in our ships and sail to the edges of our selves and, with courage and conviction, confront our dragons, serpents and other mysterious and scary unknowns head on.

Then we can embrace them, tell them we love them, and take them out for ice cream. Yes, ice cream.

Because I really believe, like Rihanna and Eminem (and Maurice Sendak, Stephen King and Carl Jung before them), that it’s only by making friends with these monsters – our fears, our weaknesses, our meanness, our weird ideas – and then forgiving them and accepting them as integral elements of our complex human selves, that we are ultimately able to tame them.

And, moreover, it’s only through knowing, embracing and forgiving the wholeness of our selves – dark and light, good and bad – that we are able to understand and forgive this same dichotomy in others.

In our partners, our children, our neighbors, our coworkers . . . even in our presidential candidates.

As Carl Jung observed, “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”

monstersSo, as Halloween approaches, I challenge you to join me in taking a page from Eminem and Rihanna.

In the same way that you will be kind and welcoming to the many monsters that will come to your door for Halloween tricks and treats, be friends with your own monsters. Get along with your voices. Explore and embrace your dragons – your flaws, your demons, your frailties, your craziness – and then let your intimate knowledge of your own dark corners lead you to connect with others in all of their wonderful complexity.

What about you? What monsters, dragons or other fantastical creatures are on the dark edges of your map? Have you made your peace with any of them? And what about those candidates? Can we see their complexity if we’re not in touch with our own? Let’s start the dialogue now.

And, if this post got you thinking, you might also like these on keeping up appearances or revealing our true selves.

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8 Responses to Here Be Dragons (And Monsters)

  1. Robin says:

    Once again, your eloquence has stopped me in my tracks today, so I sit and THINK and am inspired to do so many things that were burbling under the surface. One being – draw my dragons! I love your perspective, and thank you so much for sharing it.

    • Anne Barker says:

      I am so very pleased that this spoke to you, Robin. It’s always my hope that what I think and feel will turn out to be what others are thinking and feeling too. Otherwise, yikes! – it feels scary to out myself in this way!

  2. Elly says:

    My monsters are perfectionism and being judgmental (I’m sure the two are linked). I’m hard on myself, and I’m hard on others. I’m learning to mitigate my perfectionism when it’s not appropriate and embrace it when it’s an asset. (I’m great at spotting errors in huge tables of data).

    And wouldn’t you know, that not only am I not perfect, but I’m married to an imperfect man, and have an imperfect child, and yet they’re perfect for me. 🙂

    I’m still working on not being judgmental.

    • Anne Barker says:

      Yes! I love this, Elly. Especially the part about embracing your perfectionism when it’s an asset. Because it’s really true, isn’t it, that our monsters have two sides. And we find this out by being friendly with them.

      Thanks for weighing in here, Elly. Very thoughtful.

  3. Ben Varnum says:

    Great article!

    A reflection it triggered for me:
    I’ve always loved tabletop games, and got in with “Dungeons and Dragons” groups — a game that encourages you to imagine yourself as a fictional character — over the years. Over time, I realized the most fun games were ones where I gave the character an attribute that was either something I was thinking about in my own life, or the opposite of it. It could be in a big or small way.

    An easy example from a few years ago: I moved to a new town and got in with a new group of people. I was a stranger to them and they’d known each other a while, so I made up a character who’d been raised in isolation and taught to fear the outside world. This allowed the “in character” conversations to take on the awkwardness of my being the newcomer, and as their characters worked out how to allow a newcomer in — in the overblown melodrama of an epic fantasy world — we were able to laugh about things over our snack and beer breaks.

    I’ve always thought that Halloween is a great opportunity to be playful with dark or longed-for parts of ourselves, and I definitely think people should take full advantage of the opportunities that playfulness can offer!

    • Anne Barker says:

      I love your gaming connections here, Ben, and the idea that we can approach the dark sides of ourselves within a spirit of playfulness. Reminds me of the movie Monsters, Inc., which I believe engages that very same spirit.

  4. Anne Barker says:

    Thanks for sharing your article, Ben! I agree it goes in a different direction than my monsters reference, but it’s an important one, I think. I especially love this: “. . . many of us will have pieces of the truth, and . . . we have to leave our boundaries open and porous enough to hear those parts that we do not ourselves hold, if we are ever to engage the problems in their entirety.” Beautiful thought, and beautifully written.

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