The Wisdom of Oz: Building Brains, Cultivating Courage, and Heeding Your Heart

Every once in a great while, a metaphorical story comes along that captures the human experience in such a perfect way that it becomes an eternal classic.
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Every once in a great while, a metaphorical story comes along that captures the human experience in such a perfect way that it becomes an eternal classic. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is just such a story -- it is the tale of Everyman and Everywoman. Over a billion people have read the book and/or seen the movie, shared across generations and across continents. Published as a children's book in 1900, and adapted into a movie in 1939, L. Frank Baum's timeless tale echoes the stuff of ancient myth -- powerful, compelling, dramatic. It is the Hero's Journey -- with a lead character who leaves home in search of happiness in a better world, who travels hither and yon on a personal quest, who ultimately comes full circle, arriving back home to discover that the long-sought treasure was right there all along.

In Baum's tale of Oz, our hero is not a solitary seeker, but a band of seekers -- each feeling something lacking in themselves, each yearning for what was missing from their lives. The Scarecrow was convinced his life would be different if only he had a brain; the Tin Woodsman thought his life would be so much better if only he had a heart; and the Cowardly Lion just knew he could fulfill his destiny to be King of the Jungle if only he had courage. Can't we all identify with them? How often do we think our lives would be better ... if only we had more intelligence, more love, more courage, more something?

Dorothy was on a quest, too. She longed for "someplace where there isn't any trouble" -- no mother figure (Auntie Em) who seemed too busy to listen to a girl's silly concerns, no mean old neighbor (Miss Gulch) to complain about a sweet little dog (Toto), and no problems or difficulties of any kind. Surely such a place must exist -- somewhere over the rainbow, where life was serene and idyllic. Dorothy longed to live in Paradise. Every Hero's Journey involves a search for some kind of Paradise, Nirvana, Promised Land, El Dorado, Atlantis, Heaven -- someplace where the streets are paved with gold (or yellow bricks), everyone gets along peaceably, and there is no want, no need.

The Hero's Journey is a quest for a peaceful place -- it is also a quest for inner peace. The Hero's Journey is ultimately a quest to find the Self. It is a universal quest, one with which we can all identify.

The Oz story has four heroes -- an ensemble cast questing together -- each seeking something personal, something uniquely theirs. And when they finally reach the wonderful Wizard of Oz, they each get something different, but they all get what they need.

And, as with all journeys, this one isn't as much about the destination as it is about the journey itself. Dorothy and her companions travel the yellow brick road, encountering a multitude of hazards and obstacles along the way -- challenges we can all identify with: flying monkeys of fear who can carry us away, wicked witches of jealousy and resentment, alluring detours of poppy fields that can easily sidetrack us from our goal, and militant soldiers standing in the way of our liberation from insecurity and self-doubt. These are metaphors for the threats and dangers we all face in traveling the yellow brick road of our own careers and lives.

But the journey wasn't all peril and obstacles -- there are also good witches and mentors to call on when we need assistance, as well as Munchkin friends and fans to cheer us on our way. We are not alone on our journey -- support and encouragement are available at every turn.

And what of the Wizard? Unlike what the four seekers hoped for and expected, the Wizard does not tap them on the head with some wizardly wand and turn them into something they aren't. No, his job is simply to reassure the foursome that they are not lacking anything -- he helps them recognize their own true talents and abilities. The Wizard's job is to enable the seekers to see themselves more clearly -- he reminds them how smart, talented, and courageous they already are.

And let us not forget the shoes -- those magic slippers that take us wherever we want to go. They are the mythical equivalent of wings on our feet, transporting us into the future of our dreams. We all have magic slippers -- traveling shoes that represent the power of belief, the power of affirming what we really want, the power of claiming your heart's desire.

The story of Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion -- and Toto, too -- is the story of all who seek happiness and fulfillment in their own lives. It is the quest to discover your true self -- to develop your own brains, heart, and courage -- and to help others do the same.


BJ Gallagher is a sociologist and author of over two dozen books, including an international best-seller, "A Peacock in the Land of Penguins" (Berrett-Koehler), published in 23 languages.

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