From Catastrophe to Change

Every now and again a story comes along and serves as a mirror to my inner life.  Good stories allow me to put a face to my thoughts.  Sometimes the face so resembles me it’s scary, funny, illuminating, and maybe even healing.  This little fable on catastrophic thinking made me laugh, cry, and scream all at the same time, and turned the mirror on my own sometimes jumbled head space.

The Two Matches by Robert Louis Stevenson: [I added the stars for ease of reading.]

ONE day there was a traveller in the woods in California, in the dry season, when the Trades were blowing strong. He had ridden a long way, and he was tired and hungry, and dismounted from his horse to smoke a pipe.

But when he felt in his pocket he found but two matches. He struck the first, and it would not light. “Here is a pretty state of things!” said the traveller. “Dying for a smoke; only one match left; and that certain to miss fire! Was there ever a creature so unfortunate?”

“And yet,” thought the traveller, suppose I light this match, and smoke my pipe, and shake out the dottle here in the grass; * the grass might catch on fire, for it is dry like tinder; * and while I snatch out the flames in front, they might evade and run behind me, * and seize upon yon bush of poison oak; before I could reach it, that would have blazed up;  * over the bush I see a pine tree hung with moss; that too would fly in fire upon the instant to its topmost bough; and the flame of that long torch, * how would the trade wind take and brandish that through the inflammable forest!  * I hear this dell roar in a moment with the joint voice of wind and fire, I see myself gallop for my soul, * and the flying conflagration chase and outflank me through the hills; *  I see this pleasant forest burn for days, and the cattle roasted, * and the springs dried up, * and the farmer ruined, * and his children cast upon the world. What a world hangs upon this moment!” 

With that he struck the match, and it missed fire. Thank God!” said the traveller, and put his pipe in his pocket.


I’d hate to be that poor traveler!  Yet, in truth, haven’t I been?

The first time I remember was when I was in the sixth grade and I entertained the thought I couldn’t endure school anymore.  Ask me how or why this thought came into my mind and I couldn’t say.  I just got fed up with going to school.  I was a pretty good student, had friends, was even president of my class, but I just hated sitting through six hours of classes.

The thought that got it started was how could I ever endure two more years of grade school, four years of high school and four years of college.  These thoughts overwhelmed me and in no time I quit going to school.  My parents couldn’t figure out what to do.  My mother tried persuasion, my father his belt, and soon I was carted off to weekly sessions with a psychiatrist.  I was lost in a downward spiral.

Finally, as a last measure, I was sent to live with with my aunt and uncle for a while.  The thinking was maybe a change of scenery would help.  I spent my days studying, keeping up with class assignments and trying to figure out how to get myself right with school.

Then one morning my uncle, who was a Seattle police officer, came into my bedroom, fully dressed in his uniform and announced in a clear, declarative sentence, “Pat, put your clothes on.  You’re going to school today.”

There would be no discussion, no debate, no questions.  It was unequivocally clear that no other thoughts would be entertained that day. There would be only one thought: Pat was going to school.

  • I got out of bed,
  • put my clothes on,
  • grabbed my coat
  • got into his squad car,
  • and went to school.

And that was that.

In a simple declarative sentence I regained control of my thought life.  I went to school that day and the day after and all the days till I graduated from college.  The quitting school thought never entered my mind again.  I learned that thoughts have an on off/on switch and I own that switch.

I’ve learned I have to practice using that switch, and I’m not always good at it, but it is available.  I invite you to notice what your thoughts might be today.

Just a thought…


Copyright © 2019 Patrick J. Moriarty. All Rights Reserved.

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