A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me something. He told me that he had done something he deeply regretted. That he had hurt someone close to him deeply. And he was feeling so guilty about it.
“There’s a snake in me,” he said, “And sometimes it just comes out, no matter what I do.”
Those words hit me hard. Like a ton of bricks.
The thing is, I utter those words a lot. In my mind. And for more than a decade, in therapy. Except I don’t use the word snake. I use words like “demon” or “monster.”
It’s been a lifetime of struggling with the demon, the monster, the snake.
But recently, the struggle has changed.
I am no longer fighting the snake. Now, I’m fighting the idea that there is a snake.
When my friend told me those words, I thought back to all those dark days in my life, those moments when I saw the demon.
The idea of thinking there is something evil lurking inside you just waiting to come out… something you need to hide away in the recesses of your heart until you let down your guard and it pops up… is a trapping, scary, horrible reality to live with.
It makes mistakes not into temporary difficulties to be overcome. Rather, they are horrible reminders that we, or part of us, is evil.
The snake can’t be killed, we reason. And the snake doesn’t live in all of us, because God knows not everyone makes the same horrible mistakes we’ve made.
So the snake, the demon, the monster, isn’t just a horrible black bile waiting to erupt from our system, it is a judgment of our whole worth, of whether we are good people or not.
I’m writing this piece, screaming it from my heart, because I know too many people like me and like my friend. People who make mistakes and all they can see is their snakes. All they can see is demons that exist only in them and the other bad people. The unworthy ones.
The reality is that this self-perception kills us from the inside. We spend our whole lives acting, pretending. Hiding the snake we see. And so we feel like frauds, impostors, living holy lives that are really just facades for the gratuitous evil inside.
And so joy in our lives is no longer joy. It is tainted. It is relief, not joy. Relief that we haven’t been discovered. That the snake is in the cage.
And when it does come out, there’s a relief there too. A relief that we’re showing who we “really are.” Evil. Bad. Or at least, royally screwed up. Screwups who will never get better, who will only get better at being frauds, not at being genuinely good.
The snake is a lie. No child in the world thinks he has a snake in his body, in his heart, or in his soul. It would take a severely traumatizing moment to convince a child that he is inherently bad.
The snake is a learned reality, one that we pick up somewhere along the emotionally perilous journey of life.
A teacher jumping out from behind the bushes who called us a bad seed. A relative or friend we trust who stabs us back when we hurt them, telling us there’s something “wrong” with us. Or perhaps moments, experiences, where we were literally raped, abused, or physically attacked.
The snake is a script written by others and implanted in our mind as a narrative to help us understand why we do thinks we regret, things we imagined only evil people could do. In other words, it serves a purpose: it helps us understand a world, the world in our complicated bodies, that often makes absolutely no sense.
But it’s only a script, and it’s a false one. Like the child, we are good. We are good. We are good.
Do you understand me? You are good. Please listen, please imagine I am shaking you and telling you and hugging you. You are good. The snake is a lie.
But what is true? We can’t just escape our narrative, we need to build a new one. How do we replace this lie that’s been implanted in us? How do we become children again? Where self-love is not considered selfish but simply natural and accurate.
The Zohar, the most famous book of Jewish mysticism, tells a parable.
A king wants to test his son, the prince. Does the son have the moral fortitude to be king? Does he deserve to inherit the kingdom?
So the king hires a charming, beautiful, intelligent woman. He asks her to seduce his son, to pretend to be a prostitute. To do everything in her power to seduce him.
There is no ending to this story. That is where the story ends.
What follows is an examination of the motivation of the king and the woman.
First, the woman. The woman is not a prostitute. Just as the snake is not the snake at all. The woman is a test, and she is on a holy mission. She has absolutely no desire to actually seduce the young man. She wants the young man to succeed. She cares about the prince, and although she does all in her power to succeed, she hopes, she believes, that the prince will pass. Or she would not do it.
Now, the king. Is the king really testing his son? Or perhaps there is something even deeper happening. Perhaps the test isn’t the kind we think of. The kind with letter grades that tell us whether we’re good or bad, successful or unsuccessful.
Perhaps it’s a test in the way tests are meant to actually be: a push for us to rise higher. An opportunity to grow.
The king, I believe, is not interested in whether his son succeeds, as such, but that his son is pushed to succeed. I imagine that if the son failed, the test would happen again.
The test, the woman, is no prostitute, and the king is no believer that we are static, good or evil beings.
No, the woman is good, the opposite of a prostitute. A holy woman.
And the test? It is not a test. It is an opportunity.
That snake you see inside of you? It is the woman. When you succumb to it, you are no more evil than the holiest prince who ever lived. You are good, do you hear me? You are good.
And the succumbing, the “failing” of the test, what is that? Just like with the prince, it is not a grade stamped on our souls, forever branded. It is an opportunity. An opportunity to rise higher, even higher, than ever before.
Because the tests will keep coming, the good woman inside of us always wanting us not to fail, but to succeed. And both her and the king: they know how much they are pushing you, how far it will go. And so they don’t blame you for failure. Rather, they celebrate when you learn.
To bring one more Jewish idea: it is said that all the angels in heaven cry out in utter joy whenever we learn from our mistakes and grow from them. Can you imagine? The whole spiritual universe is cheering for you, loving you, and completely and utterly invested in you.
And even if you don’t believe all that mumbo jumbo, maybe you can realize what it says about you and the challenges you face. That failures are opportunities. That they exist simply to allow us to grow more and more.
The myth of the snake is what is evil. When we don’t understand the above, we hide the snake away. We live in fear, and don’t even realize our opportunity to grow.
When we do understand the snake, we look at it. We take it out of the cage. And we see it for what it is.
Not a snake. No. A beautiful woman. And if you listen closely she is whispering a not-so-secret message: “You can do this.”
Image credit: the great Tzipora Lifchitz. Please support her work.