a fable about student loans

Student loans getting you down?

I know the feeling. I used to feel smothered by my student loans. As soon as I paid it off, I took on my husband’s when we got married. When he started talking about going back to school, my first feelings were fear and resentment.

I know I’m not alone: one of my clients wished he could go back to school for something he really wanted to do, but the money he owed felt like an unbearable burden. He compared it to the bear in The Revenant: “It just keeps coming back to maul me.”

How we think about something has just as big an impact as the thing itself. I knew that feeling gross about our debt wasn’t going to pay it off any faster, and might keep us from pursuing opportunities in the future.

It was time to think differently about our debt.

When I want to reframe a situation, I sometimes free-associate until I come up with an image that has a similar feeling for me. In this case, what came to mind when I thought about our student loans was a dragon sitting on a pile of gold.

Why would anyone willingly interact with something so obviously dangerous? I asked myself. And that’s where our story begins.

Once there was a peasant who lived in a tiny village far away from a large and prosperous city.

He had worked hard and had made a humble but pleasant life for himself. He was grateful for what he had, because he knew many people who had a more difficult time of it.

He often dreamed of going to the city to see what wonders and opportunities it held, but the path was too dangerous to travel alone, and the cost of the long carriage ride was more than he would ever be able to save up on his meager wages.

He thought about it for many months, and in all his ponderings could come up with only one solution.

He decided to ask the local dragon to carry him to the city.

Assuming the dragon didn’t eat him on sight, he reasoned, they might be able to strike a bargain.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” said the dragon when the peasant showed up at its cave, panting from the long and rocky climb. “I could fly you to the city, but frankly, I’d rather stay here in my cave and gloat over my gold and jewels. So you would have to make it worth my while.”

“Well, I have neither gold nor jewels,” sighed the peasant, thinking of the goat he’d tied up outside as an opening offer. The dragon yawned, signaling the end of the conversation. The peasant took a last look around the cave, preparing to make his way back down the mountain.

Then inspiration struck.

“You must have traveled far and wide to accumulate such treasure in your youth. How do you add to your hoard these days, now that we men have become wise to the ways of dragons and learned to defend ourselves?” he asked.

The dragon looked uncomfortable. “I don’t, mostly. I just like to sit on it. Sometimes I raid a city or two, but I don’t like to expend the effort, I don’t care to kill things I’m not going to eat later, and there are usually knights protecting it. I’d rather sit here and count what I have than risk a feisty knight with a stupid magic sword or something.”

“See here,” said the peasant. “It’s true, I have nothing to give you now, but when I find work in the city, I will start earning gold of my own. If you fly me there, I will set aside a portion of it for you every month. You will be able to grow your hoard without wasting energy or risking your safety.”

The dragon’s eyes gleamed and the peasant could tell it was interested.

“This offer intrigues me…but I must make sure that you won’t disappear into the city crowds forever and break your promise.”

It turned its back on him and began to dig through the treasure of the cave. The peasant looked at the enormous scaly bulk towering over him and momentarily considered fleeing while he had the chance. How would the dragon insure his loyalty? He shuddered to imagine. But he held his ground and waited.

The dragon turned back with a gold chain held in its claws. Compared to the dragon, the chain looked impossibly thin and fragile. “Hold out your hand and come close, would-be city-dweller.”

The peasant edged closer, unable to hide his shaking. The dragon smirked at him, as well as a dragon can. “You are not lunch. You are much more than that, now. I will not hurt you.”

It wrapped the thin chain around his wrist, breathed a thin stream of flame at one claw tip until it glowed red, and deftly touched it to where the ends of the chain met. The bracelet was sealed around his wrist before he even had time to flinch.

“This bracelet can only be melted by dragonfire. There is no use in trying to remove it, unless you choose to take the chance that another dragon will be as slow to eat you as I am.” It seemed highly amused by this thought.

“It is also enchanted and linked to this cave, to the hoard from which it came. If you fail to deliver the gold you have promised, I will use it to bring you back here, and then I will eat you.

“These are the terms of my bargain: twenty gold pieces each month for the next ten years.”

The peasant was floored. That was almost what he made in a month now, and it was much more than the cost of the carriage ride!

…Which he would never be able to accumulate, he reminded himself, in his current life.

He tried to argue, but the dragon was firm. “You’ll see, when you get to the city, it will be easy to make that and more. Here, I’ll even give you some gold now to buy new clothes for yourself when you get there. You have quick wits and a quicker tongue, and as long as they don’t get you in too much trouble, you’ll surely find a use for them in the city.”

“How do I know you’ll be satisfied after ten years? You may be too accustomed to my gold by then to give it up.”

The dragon huffed. “Do you know nothing about dragons? We don’t lie the way humans do, and we never break a bargain. Besides, you’ve given me an idea. I may see if there are other humans in the village who will agree to the same arrangement.”

Reassured, the peasant reluctantly agreed to the dragon’s terms.

In short order, he returned with his few possessions and the dragon flew him to a field on the outskirts of the city. Emboldened with the success of his plan and the new gold in his pocket, he made his way to the city gates.

He found the dragon to be correct about his wits and tongue, and quickly made a successful and interesting life for himself in his new home. Time passed quickly, and each month he left twenty gold pieces under a rock in the field where the dragon had left him all those years ago.

When he fell in love and married, his wife hated the arrangement.

As it turned out, she had just recently paid off a dragon of her own, but her village had been closer to the city and the terms of their arrangement less harsh. Still, she couldn’t help but feel resentful that as soon as her dragon had been satisfied, she became beholden to another one.

The weight of the twenty gold pieces became heavier and heavier in her mind, especially when her husband mused aloud about asking his dragon for a ride to the even more distant and inaccessible capitol. She dreaded that they’d be sending gold to the dragon until the end of their days.

The bargain was poisoning a small part of her love for her husband.

She realized what was happening before it was too late, and so she went to a quiet place to contemplate her feelings.

She said to the spirits of that place, “This bargain is causing me resentment and anxiety. I beg you, show me a more peaceful path, that I may live in joy and gratitude with my husband once more.”

As she pondered these things, it was as though a veil was lifted in her heart. She became aware of the existence of an alternate story alongside the one she had been telling herself for so long.

It was true, there were things they couldn’t do or purchase because of the dragon’s payment.

However, without the bargain, her husband would have never come to the city, would never have met her, would never have learned the skills and wisdom that he had today. He would still be toiling at home in his village, far from her, wishing and dreaming of the city until the end of his days.

The dragon’s bargain had always felt like a heavy weight or an impassible stone wall.

For the first time, she also saw it as an open door.

There was a price for opening the door, but the woman knew that there is always a price to be paid in fairy tales. She found that with her new perspective, she could freely admit that the door had opened to more happiness and richness of experience than twenty gold pieces a month could ever buy.

For the first time, she felt a flicker of gratitude toward the dragon where before there had always been anger and sadness.

The true burden she was carrying was the weight of her own worry.

Recognizing this, she gladly set it down and left that place.

She returned to her husband and shared what she had learned, and he rejoiced that the dragon’s bargain no longer came between them. They continued to set aside the gold each month, and each time she gave thanks for the life they had together.

Her husband still spoke occasionally of flying to the capitol, but her heart was quiet now. She knew that whatever future bargain might be made with the dragon, this time it would be both of them that made it.

I hope you enjoyed this break from our normal programming! Can you see how changing a metaphor can create such a powerful shift in perspective? Sign up for a free strategy call to see how you can get unstuck in your own life and make peace with your own dragons, whatever they are.

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