Christmas 2016, a fable

starry reindeerNo one recalled when Rudy joined the teamsters, it may have been several seasons back.  Awkward and quiet, he mostly kept to himself.  The other guys avoided Rudy.  No one ever asked him to join their casual poker games, no one ever invited him to hang out after work.  He wasn’t harassed exactly, but their barely hidden disdain was depressing background noise.  Every day or two he caught a hint of derisive laughter; he imagined himself the butt of a joke he hadn’t heard.  It was clear the gang didn’t like him, and Rudy was pretty sure he knew why.  It was purely an appearance thing.

You wouldn’t think it would matter much to a bunch of young bucks — and the occasional doe, like Vixen — hauling cargo.  But Rudy’s nose glowed flamboyantly red.  It drew attention wherever he went.  His coworkers, if they thought about it at all, assumed it was from drinking too much, although they also feared a communicable disease, an infection maybe.  In any case, they didn’t ask, and in his shame, Rudy didn’t tell.

The truth was that Rudy was transitioning.  Although he was raised in a traditional reindeer family, childhood tales of flight had fascinated him.  In school he took a special interest in winged creatures: birds, bats, and insects of all types.  He imagined soaring above the tundra, smoke wafting from tiny village chimneys below.  He wanted to be an entomologist, an expert in insects, winged ones specifically.  But his grades weren’t good enough for college.  So he contented himself with his butterfly net, and with catching fireflies in a glass jar on warm summer evenings.

He felt a special kinship with fireflies, the way they hovered in place, their flashing glow signaling to others through thin air.  Always shy, Rudy wished he too had a way to signal to others, to reach across the void, to connect.  The longer he gazed into his jar, the more yearning he felt: to fly, to hover with his mates, to glow with an organic light from within.

After graduating, Rudy joined the air-cargo team up north.  It was seasonal work but the pay wasn’t bad.  His boss was always in a jolly mood, and he didn’t feel quite so alone with his team.  Best of all, the job fulfilled his dreams of flight.  Still, he kept thinking about the fireflies: their peaceful, carefree lives, the way their souls literally lit up the space around them.  He wanted to be one.

It isn’t easy for a reindeer, even one running air cargo, to transition to firefly.  Wings were out of the question; he was no Pegasus.  Fortunately, with dedicated internet searching he found tips and suggestions.  There was even a small online community of quadrupeds with an interest in — some called it a fetish for — chemiluminescence.  Posting anonymously, Rudy was welcomed in.  For the first time, his preoccupation didn’t feel so weird.  He learned that a glowing nose could be achieved with practice (and without scary, expensive surgery).  And practice he did, day and night, until he glowed just like the fireflies of his childhood.  Except in red.

Only last winter did Rudy muster the courage to come out at work.  He wasn’t expecting a warm reception; after all, he wasn’t that popular to start with.  Yet the blunt ostracism of the others shocked him.  He was still the same Rudolph inside, glow or no glow.  He loved the air runs, but started to think about different work — leading nighttime tours of the tundra, maybe, or helping with the caribou migration.

Then one foggy evening before a big run, the boss came over.  While he rarely talked to Rudy directly, he had watched the painful shunning all along.  He asked Rudy to lead the run.  This was partly practical — Rudy’s glowing nose would cut through the foggy gloom — but also to let the others know the management didn’t approve of workplace discrimination and prejudice.  After all, the boss was one of the first in the region to employ elves, another historically disadvantaged group.

Rudy took great pride in leading the run, which by all accounts was completed under budget and ahead of schedule.  And the wisdom of the boss, it turned out, shined even brighter than Rudy’s nose.  For this single event turned the glowing nose from a shameful liability to an asset.  The other guys now accepted Rudy and even celebrated the diversity he brought to the team.  Instead of making jokes at Rudy’s expense, they joked instead that they’d all go down in history as the only air-cargo team led by a four-hooved firefly.  They laughed with him, not at him, and that made all the difference in the world.  Several confessed that they too had dreamed of flight when young.  A few were even curious to learn chemiluminescence themselves, although none ever went through with it.  Rudy led a number of other runs over the years, especially when fog or a moonless night called for extra light, and was happy ever after to be accepted by his coworkers.

The moral of this story: Inclusion and acceptance are aided by powerful role models.  When leaders, such as workplace managers, employers, and politicians, model humanitarian ideals, we are encouraged to rise to their level.  Conversely, when those in authority promote bigotry and hate, when they fan the flames of xenophobia and prejudice, it gives permission for those who look up to them to show their worst (s)elves.

Image courtesy of MR. LIGHTMAN at

4 comments to Christmas 2016, a fable

  • Nemo

    Wow, you just went from a psychiatry blog to a political rant! Obviously you are not happy about the outcome of the recent elections. And being in San Francisco, I expect most of your patients feel the same way. But what if you have patients who dont feel the same way? Are you a good enough psychiatrist to empathize with them? Or are you just another self-righteous leftist who would judge them? Perhaps reject them? Perhaps you would even refuse to see patients with a different political viewpoint. Because the left cant stomach a different viewpoint. Does that apply to psychiatrists too?

    • Hi Nemo,

      I think “rant” is too strong. It’s a fairly gentle retelling of classic Christmas lyrics, mostly to try my hand at creative writing, and yes, to offer a moral. The basic theme — ostracism due to difference, and then acceptance after “the boss” grants recognition — is right there in the original. I tried to soften any self-righteousness by making the story a bit silly: he wants to be a firefly? there’s online support for four-legged animals that want to glow?

      While most of my patients are liberal/progressive, I have enthusiastic Trump voters, and a few who were dissatisfied with all the candidates. I don’t know the political leanings of others, because the topic didn’t even arise this election year. As a more general matter, I’ve worked with patients on either side of any political debate you can imagine. I’ve also had patients confess to reprehensible actions, e.g., behaviors that harmed others, including children, and I’ve worked hard to empathize even with them (while not condoning their actions). I certainly don’t need to agree with a patient’s politics, career choice, parenting style, or anything else really, in order to work with them.

      In the end, this post is about just that: empathizing without necessarily condoning. It’s a children’s song about ridiculing and excluding someone who’s different — a painful experience nearly every kid has faced — and then recognizing his unique contribution and accepting him. I’ve known political liberals and conservatives my whole life, none of whom would take offense at this. Yet I now risk being called “self-righteous leftist” if I laud the virtues of tolerance found in a children’s song. This isn’t a matter of left versus right; plenty of staunch conservatives have been appalled this campaign season by the lack of empathy and nuance, the name-calling and contempt coming from our president-elect. The critique in my post could have come from Paul Ryan or the Bush family as easily as Bernie Sanders. But actually it’s a story from 1939, with a timeless message that’s just right for Christmas: Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.

  • Nemo

    Thank you for taking the time to reply. And for elaborating the intent of your message. In fact you are correct, it shouldnt be left versus right and in fact your message of goodwill in christmas is a timeless pleasure with which we all grew up, myself included. I chose to challenge you however because in this current climate, ive no idea what anyones intentiins are anymore. The “tolerant” left preaches these messages of goodwill, but in a bullying aggressive way, with little acceptance or empathy for anyome elses views. You so much as them and you are called out as a racist, part of the problem, deplorable, an awful person, a bigot, a oiece of s***t, before finally being unfriended on social media. It has been truly hell. And im not even a Trump supporter, im actually on the fence and still asking questions!

    • Thanks for the follow-up, and for still asking questions. I agree there’s intolerance on the left (as well as the right). Lately, some pundits have critiqued “identity politics” on both political poles, but in particular as an explanation for why Clinton lost. No one likes dismissive labels.

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