The Little Engine Revisited

Chug-chugging and puff-puffing, the Little Engine rounded a bend and came upon a stalled train loaded with toys and food, sitting on a side track at the foot of a very high mountain.

“Deja vu!” said the Little Engine. The sight reminded her of the day she made her mark in the world of train lore. It had been a long time since that happened, but she remembered the occasion very clearly. She had rescued another train—very similar to this one—by pulling it over a mountain just in time to deliver its goods to the boys and girls waiting in the valley below.

It had been a hard pull, one that a less spirited engine would not have attempted. But she had put everything she had into it, and had succeeded largely because she was convinced she could do it.

“I think I can, I think I can,” she had whispered to herself all the way up the mountain side. And all the way down the other side, she sang out to herself, “I thought I could, I thought I could!” And the train behind her had cheered all the way into the station.

The story of her accomplishment spread through every rail yard in the country. From that point on, she was a celebrity-without-peer. She made appearances on all the talk shows; gave commencement addresses and led seminars on “The Importance of Clear Goals and Self-Determination.” She had written a book about her achievement and was the inspiration for several others. She was the role model of an entire nation, the perfect example of “What You Could Do If You Put Your Mind To It!” Mothers and fathers told their children the wonderful story of the Little Engine. Scientists and presidents, generals and executives, janitors and firemen all aspired to be just like her.

“We can end death and disease,” they said. “We can erase poverty; land people on the moon; obliterate injustice; stop war; halt the aging process; win the pennant; and invent a dripless faucet! We can do anything we want to, if we want to badly enough!

The Little Engine smiled as she reflected on the results of her efforts. She found great satisfaction in knowing that she had led so many people to the discovery of Truth. She was so proud of her achievement that she had “You Can If You Think You Can” stenciled in bold letters on both sides of her cab. And she was fond of closing her news conferences and lectures with the statement: “The only thing that limits us is our belief in our limitations.”

Now, here she was with another chance to show the world what believing in oneself could do. So, it was with a mixture of nostalgia and exhilaration that she pulled in front of the stranded train in order to hook up and pull it away.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” shouted the train.

“Why, I’m going to pull you over the mountain,” said the Little Engine.

“That isn’t necessary,” said the train. “I’ve already radioed ahead for a tow. But thanks for offering.”

The Little Engine was taken aback by this rejection of her offer to help. She could see her plans for renewed glory disintegrating on the spot. “Oh, come now,” she said, “you know it might be hours before the yard can send an engine to take you in. I’m already here. It would be silly to wait when we could be under way.”

“I don’t mean to sound harsh,” said the train, “but that is a very high mountain, and you are a very small engine. You’ll have a hard enough time just pulling your own weight over. I better wait for the tow.”

“Don’t worry about me!” said the Little Engine, “I wrote the book on handling high mountains! The only thing that limits us is our belief in our limitations. I’ll have you over in no time.”

With that, the Little Engine coupled into the train and started up the mountain. At first, the track ascended at a gradual slope and the going was easy. The Little Engine breezed along.

“What a lark!” she exclaimed. “What a wonderful time to be alive!” But the incline soon steepened, and the Little Engine was forced to concentrate all her energy on the task at hand.

“I think I can, I think I can,” she said to herself as the track rose in front of her. “I think I can, I think I can.”

The gradient became almost vertical, and the Little Engine was straining to the utmost. “I—think—I—can,” she gasped, “I—-think——I——–c—a—-n.” The Little Engine’s wheels made a final revolution, hesitated, and began rolling backwards with increasing speed.

“I thought I could,” said the Little Engine, “I thought I could, I thought I could,” all the way down to the bottom of the mountain.

“Whew,” she said, when she finally came to a stop. “That is quite a climb!”

“It certainly is,” agreed the train. “But the tow will be here shortly. We shouldn’t have long to wait.”

“Wait?” exclaimed the Little Engine. “I should say not! I’ll just get a faster start this time. After all, ‘You Can If You Think You Can!’”

As the Little Engine backed up for a running start, she mentally went through the Steps to Success, and focused carefully on each stage required to complete the climb. She visualized herself doing exactly what needed to be done, conjured up all the Positive Resolution she owned, and flew at the mountain.

“This time, I know I can,” she shouted. “I know I can, I know I can!” And she did do better. She made it beyond the high point of her first try by precisely seven and one-half inches.

“Oh, no you don’t,” she said when she felt her wheels stopping. “Oh—no—-you ——don’t. I——can——–d—–o——t—-h——i——–s.” And, with a mighty surge of self determination, she popped all her rivets, burst her boiler, cracked her cylinder head, and slid back down the mountain.

The train had never been in a situation like this and didn’t know what to say. They sat in embarrassed silence for a while, then he cleared his throat and asked, “Are you all right?”

The Little Engine didn’t answer. She sat stunned, shaking her head and stammering, “I thought I could, I thought I could. . .”

In time, the tow arrived from the rail yard and pulled both the train and the Little Engine over the mountain and into the station. There, the Little Engine was petted, and patted, and told not to worry.

“The mountain was too steep for you,” the other engines said. “You did more than any engine your size could expect to do. Don’t let this get you down.”

But it did get her down. She was given new rivets, a new boiler, and a new cylinder head, but the workmen could not replace her spirit. In spite of the best efforts of everyone, the Little Engine showed in interest in life. She stayed away from all the activities of the yard and sat off by her self repeating, “I thought I could, I thought I could.”

Her dejection finally became too much for her, and she went to see her doctor. “I feel terrible, Doctor,” she said. “I see no reason to go on with it. I don’t want to do anything any more. Can’t you give me something to make me feel better?”

“Pills can’t make the world any better than it is,” said her Doctor. “When the effects of the pills wear off, the world won’t have changed one bit. What you need, Little Engine, is an attitude adjustment. That will enable you to live with what you think can’t be lived with. But I can’t do that for you; you’ll have to do it for yourself.”

“But how, Doctor?” asked the Little Engine. “How can I do that?”

“By sitting with the problem long enough,” said the Doctor. “By looking at what you don’t want to live with and living with it anyway.”

“But I don’t want to do that!” said the Little Engine, “I want to be able to pull a big train over the high mountain!”

“Sorry,” said her Doctor. “You can’t have everything you want.”

“That’s not true!” said the Little Engine. “We can do anything we want if we want to badly enough! The only thing that limits us is our belief in our limitations! You can if you think you can!” And, with that, she steamed out of the Doctor’s office with tears in her eyes.

Her misery was more than she could bear. “It’s hopeless,” she said to herself. “There’s only one proper and fitting thing to do. I’ll end it all!”

With that, she chugged out of the round-house with a new-found purpose, and headed for Pufferbelly Plunge. When she arrived, she peered over the edge to the rocks below, backed up to get some momentum for the leap, took a deep breath and prepared to take the Plunge. But a voice stopped her dead in her tracks.

“What are you doing, Little Engine?”

The Little Engine turned around. It was the Chief Locomotive!

“Uh,” stammered the Little Engine, “Well, Sir, it’s just that I can’t see any point in going on with it.”

“And what brought this on, Little Engine,” asked the Chief.

“It’s because I can’t do what I want to do,” she said.

“Are you thinking about the time you blew up on the mountain?” asked the Chief.

“Yes,” said the Little Engine, “That’s when things started coming apart for me. I thought I could pull the train over the mountain, but I couldn’t. Yet, you can if you. . .”

“Think you can,” said the Chief, interrupting. “I believe I’ve heard that line before. And I don’t think it is a very accurate way of thinking, Little Engine. For instance, are you saying that you can go anywhere you want to go even if there are no tracks to take you?”

“Well, no,” said the Little Engine, “Of course, you couldn’t do that.”

“No matter how much you thought you could?” asked the Chief.

“No,” said the Little Engine, “Thinking you could wouldn’t count if there were no tracks.”

“Then we are limited by the tracks, right?” asked the Chief.

“Yes,” said the Little Engine, “We are limited by the tracks.”

“And not only by the tracks, Little Engine,” said the Chief, “There are plenty of things we can’t do. Come with me.”

The Little Engine followed the Chief Locomotive as he led her to the base of the High Mountain. “Here we are,” he said. “Now, Little Engine,” I want you to look at this mountain.”

“I recognize it, Sir,” said the Little Engine, “It ‘s the mountain I couldn’t climb.”

“I didn’t ask you if you recognized it,” said the Chief, “I only want you to look at it.”

“I am looking at it, Sir,” said the Little Engine.

“Look closer,” said the Chief. “Look at it until you SEE it, Little Engine.”

The Little Engine thought that was the most ridiculous bit of instruction she had ever received, but to pacify the Chief, she stared at the mountain. She lost track of time and had no idea how long she spent looking at the mountain, but suddenly, the mountain appeared before her and she was startled awake, gasping.

“MY GOODNESS!” she exclaimed. “That is one gigantic piece of granite! It would take an engine ten times my size to pull that grade!”

“It is much too steep for most locomotives,” said the Chief. “The engineers are working on a plan to tunnel through the mountain at several different places to create switchbacks inside the mountain to make traversing it’s height safer year round and possible during the winter when ice and snow close the track you’re looking at now.”

“What was I thinking,” mused the Little Engine. “I must have been out of my mind.”

“We jump for comforting illusions,” said the Chief. “But reality has a way of grounding us in the truth of the situation at hand. Invention, resourcefulness, and creativity carry us places where a good willing mind needs a hand to be helped along. We have to know what our limits are and how we might work with them to do what can be done about the way things are.”

“I hope I’m not pushing you too much here,” continued the Chief, “But it is important that you understand our ideas of the world either assist us, or inhibit us, in adapting ourselves to reality—and it is crucial that we not let our ideas regarding how things are become rigid and incapable of being expanded and enlarged by, or abandoned in light of, our ongoing experience. We have to allow our limits to limit us if we hope to get the good out of them. And steaming over Pufferbelly Plunge isn’t good for anything. What would you say to returning to the rail yard for an old fashioned train horn concert at the Roundhouse?”

The Little Engine smiled and said, “My horn can harmonize with the best of them!” And together, they steamed back to the Yard.

Published by jimwdollar

I'm retired, and still finding my way--but now, I don't have to pretend that I know what I'm doing. I retired after 40.5 years as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving churches in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. I graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Austin, Texas, and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. My wife, Judy, and I have three daughters and five granddaughters within about twenty minutes from where we live--and are enjoying our retirement as much as we have ever enjoyed anything.

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