For the past four years my companion has been a ball python named Shima. I bought her when she was a tiny baby and now she is almost four feet long, and still as sweet as ever.
Now I know some of you may be afraid of snakes. And not just afraid, but terrified. But hang in with me. This is a story that is really about you. As you’ll learn, Shima is a very good teacher.
A couple of months ago, while I was in India, I received a text from Franklin, who was taking care of Shima while I was away.
“I’m worried about Shima. She’s not eating.”
He then explained that he had gotten a slightly bigger rat than usual, and Shima refused to eat. Now, despite bringing her little mice to tempt her, she continues to ignore them.
“It’s been six weeks since she last ate, what do I do?”
I immediately texted T, who knows everything about snakes (and dogs and raccoons pretty much any other critter you might need advice on.) She called me back.
“You know that ball pythons are exceptionally finicky eaters. She was probably bitten by the rat. At some point she’ll get hungry enough to overcome her fear. For now, don’t worry about her. Just keep trying with mice every couple of weeks.”
So, basically, Shima was spooked and needed to gain her courage to try again.
When I got home I brought her out and let her hang out in a sink full of warm water, and then we wandered around the house together, her wrapped around my neck as I talked to her. She had a tiny crescent-shaped mark on her snaky-snout, which I assumed was the remnant of her run-in with the rat.
When I put her back in her tank she tested the boundaries, looking for food, just like she had been doing every night for weeks. But when I dropped a small mouse in with her she went totally still and ignored it.
It’s now been over two months since Shima has eaten.
Happily, a snake can go over six months without eating.
Unhappily, there have been no signs of a shift.
As I’ve thought about Shima’s fear vs instinct, it has made me realize how much she is currently mirroring what so many of us humans do.
Have you held yourself back from nourishment or love or connection because you were at one time betrayed or wounded?
Sometimes, even snakes get scared. But given time and encouragement, eventually instinct takes over and pushes past fear.
How do we keep opening and loving and living when we are afraid of being hurt?
Don’t let your mind tell you that situations, which have hurt you, will bite you again; everything bites. Yes, you may have been bitten once. Sometimes life does have teeth. But if you keep expecting everything to hurt you, you’ll miss the beauty and connection (and nutrition) that is waiting for you.
After a loss or a betrayal, give yourself time to heal, and keep encouraging your natural instinct to love.
I do believe, despite our fears, one of our most primal needs is to share and receive love.
And sometimes what we fear the most — including snakes, or loss, or abandonment — can be our greatest teacher in learning to open our hearts and try again.
And for those of you afraid of snakes: a psychologist found that he could cure people of severe snake phobia in three hours. Every. Single. Time. How? Fear comes when we don’t understand something. First, he would talk, very slowly and mindfully, about snakes with his patient, and then have them stand in a room with a snake. Then he would gradually bring the snake closer until they could touch it, and eventually hold it. Boom, snake phobia gone. The key was to go slow and let the body understand that it was safe, and that the snake was not a threat. What have you been afraid of that you could gently ease yourself into learning that you are indeed safe?