Many years ago, Indian youths would go away in solitude to prepare for manhood. One such youth hiked into a beautiful valley, green with trees, bright with flowers. There he fasted. But on the third day, as he looked up at the surrounding mountains, he noticed one tall, rugged peak, capped with dazzling snow.
I will test myself against that mountain, he thought. He put on his buffalo-hide shirt, threw his blanket over his shoulders, and set off to climb the peak.
When he reached the top he stood on the rim of the world. He could see forever, and his heart swelled with pride. Then he heard a rustle at his feet, and looking down, he saw a snake. Before he could move, the snake spoke:
"I am about to die,' said the snake. 'It is too cold for me up here and I am freezing. There is no food and I am starving. Put me under your shirt and take me down the valley."
"No,' said the youth. 'If I pick you up, you will bite, and your bite will kill me."
"Not so,' said the snake. I will treat your differently. If you do this for me, you will be special. I will not harm you."
The youth rested awhile, but this was a very persuasive snake with beautiful markings. At last the youth tucked it under his shirt and carried it down to the valley. There he laid it gently on the grass, when suddenly the snake coiled, rattled, and leapt, biting him on the leg.
"But what about your promise?!", said the youth.
"You knew what I was when you picked me up," said the snake as it slithered away.
The legend above was conveyed to Norman Vincent Peale by old Iron Eyes Cody. You might remember Iron Eyes as the lone indian paddling a canoe down a polluted metropolitan river as part of the "Keep America Beautiful" campaign of the mid 1970s.
This story is a timeless illustration from an old indian legend. How often do I take the time to really explore my own conscience and if I do, what might I find there? Do I have one of those snakes with beautiful markings tucked away taking comfort in my pity, my seeming good nature, my addiction, or my laziness? Am I able to recognize the snake in the grass when I see it? And no, it probably will not go away if I ignore it.
Conscience, completely under-valued in our society, is a friend who is present not to rob us of our freedom, but to preserve it. Conscience is a clear reminder that snakes are snakes and if we pick them up and try to befriend them, they will bite us. True of our personal lives and truer still in the larger scheme of things in our nation. The polluted river may not be the only thing needing examination.
"You knew what I was when you picked me up..."