When I was about 10 years old, two girls from school came to my house—not to play—but to cut down a sapling tree in my front yard with a pair of school scissors.
They were giggling and squeezing the scissors hard around the trunk’s middle when I arrived. They seemed strong and powerful, and even though they were the same age as me and armed only with school scissors, I was anxiously hot and afraid. I stood there screaming at them to leave the tree alone, and as I pleaded for the tree, the top of my pants came loose, which sent them into uproarious laughter, and they proceeded to point at my pants and make fun of my clothes. I told them I was going call the police if they didn’t stop, but I was terrified that if I left the yard, they’d have the tree down before I even picked up the phone.
It hadn’t been the first time I was bullied, but this time I was shocked that they actually wanted to cut down a tree—just to cut me down in the process. I found it hard to justify their meanness. They raised their scissors sharp against my waning confidence, and somewhere among sinew and emotion, something new and different began to grow inside of me: blame. If I couldn’t make sense of what they were doing, then maybe it was my fault. Maybe I deserved it. It took a while to repair that little heart wound, but thankfully the tree survived, and it grew into a green giant, which shaded our modest brick house from the Texas heat.
Not long ago, I happened upon an interesting syndrome called Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS). Official definition: A social phenomenon where people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticized, because their talents or achievements distinguish them from their peers.
Why do humans feel the need to cut others down?
They believe it is their moral imperative to cut people down to size, lest they get too big for their britches. When someone is growing tall like poppies—getting a raise, making an achievement, or just having a good hair day—out come the blades. Why does such a phenomenon exist? Why the determination to maintain a collective status quo? Why do humans feel the need to cut others down? Maybe a little Greek philosophy and science fiction can show us the way.
Tall poppies tend to risk something to be tall. They have to allow themselves to be seen as they choose to go after that promotion, ask for the raise, or even get to the hairdresser. This type of risk needs a bit of confidence, does it not? But how do we find that confidence? I believe we find it by accepting death. Yes, death. There are many forms of death. Social death. Professional death. Death of a business. Death of a marriage. Death of a friendship. Death of a job. There is also death of one’s ego. Death of one’s pride. Death is scary, even when we need it—even when it’s the only thing standing between us and a truer, better version of ourselves.
How fitting then, that whoever named the syndrome would equate those brave, death-defying folks as “poppies.” Since Ancient Greece, poppies have represented dreaming, death, and rebirth. Demeter, the goddess of harvest, used poppy tea to sleep through the winter while her daughter returned to Hades. Morpheus, the god of dreams and fantasy is symbolized with poppies. Even today, poppies are worn on lapels in some cultures to remember the dead.
The image of a bright red-colored poppy seems significant as well. Red symbolizes action, life, expression, boldness, celebration. Those red poppy-faces stand tall in the sun, bend in the wind, and run over hills, calling to us saying, “Why not dream? Why not die? Why not wake again?”
In the film The Matrix, where people live in a computer generated virtual universe, Morpheus (uncannily named, no?) offers Neo two pills, one red, which will wake him into true reality, and one blue, which will allow him to continue dreaming and accepting the generated world around him as it is. Before Neo takes the red pill, he asks what the Matrix is. Morpheus responds, “It is the world that has been pulled down over your eyes to blind you.” Once Neo is awakened into his reality, the world that he knew was dead, but now he was truly alive.
More and more studies by neuroscientists are summing up the notion that we actually create our own Matrix each day, either pulling the world of “day in, day out” over our eyes, keeping our nose down, holding on to our perceptions, holding on to our old opinions, or just trying to maintain the status quo. I have a theory that it is in this reality-creating mind pattern that locks us into our fears and motivations. And to reach beyond those—to risk and search out something better for ourselves—we have to take the red pill. We have to die and be reborn.
Years beyond the modest brick house and the girls with the scissors, I spent a while in Austin, Texas lying asleep in a metaphorical poppy field, dreaming of another life. I believe I died there, many times over. I used to wonder what purpose that had, lying in the field, dreaming, and dying. I had many deaths and rebirths. I had money, lost money, had relationships, lost relationships, made enormously stupid decisions and profoundly wise decisions. I saw one friend after another follow their dream, and I would sulk and wonder why I couldn’t be brave enough to do what they were doing. I didn’t cut them down, but did, ever so severely, cut me down. I was the girl standing in the yard with the school scissors. I was the one that wouldn’t let myself grow.
It wasn’t until I took the last red pill—the one that was shaped like a one-way plane ticket—that I realized my purpose in that poppy field. It had carved me for the life ahead. I had been built and readied, heated, boiled and purified, learning to never raise those scissors again.
It is difficult to raise a hard spanking hand to poppy croppers. They are set on protection and survival. They are trapped in the Matrix. They raise the blade to risky actions and try to keep poppies quiet for the good of others. They don’t want any
pain, or risk, and they definitely do not want to face the diverse deaths that come about in life. However, if they can just give it a go… just risk a bit… put down the scissors, they may just open up just a little and be inspired. They may even decide a poppy or two is good medicine.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us. It’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
When you meet a poppy-cropper from time to time, be kind. They’re just afraid to die and be reborn. The only way to save them is to be compassionate and unapologetic for where you are in your journey, whether lying in the field, dreaming, dying and being made new, or standing towards the sun—vibrant, magnificent, alive.
Elise McMullen-Ciotti a.k.a. The Galavant Girl