Bigger Than Life

Growing up wild in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, I learned lessons as a youth (both good and bad) that still inform this soon-to-be senior adult of life’s truths. When I suggest that I grew up wild, I don’t want you to infer that I was a carouser or a gang-banger.  I also don’t mean to imply that my parents didn’t have discipline, because they did have that. We hear, “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” and let’s just say that I wasn’t spoiled! However, we did have full run of the neighborhood, the neighborhood being any place within walking, and later on biking, distance. During summer vacations and after school we ranged far and wide and discovered all the coolest hiding places, the best fields for dirt clod fights, and the finest climbing trees that were to be found. We got into a little trouble too, but we’ll leave that subject for another day.

Photo: Jeannean Ryman

In those days when the city hadn’t yet spread out into the local farmland there was wildlife galore. Garter and bull snakes were common, and lizards beyond count. My favorite was a strange-looking creature that in those days of innocence we called a horny toad. One day, I’ll rant about how our language has been hijacked by double entendres and gutter-discourse, but suffice it to say the round, tubby lizard was called that because of the myriad of sharp horns all over its sand-paper rough body and for no other reason. Its real name is the Texas Horned Lizard, with some tongue-twister of a scientific title tacked on, but we called it simply a horny toad. 

These placid reptiles, for all of their ferocious appearance, wanted nothing else but to be left alone. They had no real defenses; they weren’t lightning fast like those we called racers (Whiptails), nor could they change their body’s skin hue to match the ambient surroundings, like those we labeled chameleons (Green Anoles). They were doomed to lumber along amongst the grass and rocks and rain-parched earth, eating the big, red ants that lived in abundance on the ground and keeping an eye out for the passing coyote, dog, or snake.

They did however, have a couple of defense mechanisms that made them undesirable to predators. The first one I observed on any number of occasions, since to these little critters, I looked like a predator. When approached by their enemies, they would first try to flee. Failing that, since they just weren’t built for speed, they would stop and turn toward the dangerous party, pushing themselves up away from the earth and then, puffing themselves up with air, would expand to a much larger size than they had been originally. 

I don’t know all the data, but I’m guessing that more than one young bull snake, when faced with this “giant” lizard, would give up and move to easier prey. It probably wouldn’t seem appetizing to think about that sliding down one’s gullet. So, the little so-ugly-it’s-cute varmint would go on its way again, with one less danger to worry about on that day. 

The other defense mechanism? Well, I never saw it happen, but the books tell us that when the ruse of BIG horny toad doesn’t convince the attacker, he can actually shoot blood out of the corners of his eyes at them. The blood has a chemical which is unsavory to its attacker and discourages further confrontation.

I’m thinking that there are multiple examples in the animal kingdom who make themselves bigger to fool their enemies. Any number of non-venomous snakes threaten attack by spreading out and raising their heads as if to strike. The cute little puffer fish, which has the same spiny appearance as the horned lizard, is perhaps the most famous of these pretenders. He is not in any way equipped for sustained speed and so, is the target of many predator fishes in the ocean. But not many of them want to swallow that spiny balloon when he’s puffed up in his intimidating pose.

What is the point of this nature lesson, you ask? I’ve been thinking about the comparison of these natural responses in animals with our own response to perceived “attacks” on ourselves. We’ve become much more informed about childhood bullying in recent years. I’ve been bullied, as have most of you at one time or another in your lives. I remember way back, while still in elementary school, one kid who shoved me around one day on the playground, as he had done on a regular basis. 

I guess I finally had enough and shoved back on this occasion, prompting him to challenge me, “I’ll meet you across the street after school!” This was the well-known code for arranging a fight off school grounds and I wasn’t about to back down (in spite of the fact that I’d never been in a fistfight). 

“I’ll be there!” I snapped and stalked off, hands in pockets to demonstrate my machismo (failing miserably, I was sure).  

Evidently, the horny toad impression worked though, because 10 minutes later, he was back, mumbling, “I just remembered, I have to be someplace after school, so I won’t be there…” 

So, no fight (whew) but, a lesson learned, only to be used many times in my life, and not always for the right motives. It’s a little discussed fact that often bullies have been bullied themselves. They’ve just learned how to make themselves big and they like the power it gives them over others.

Speaking purely for myself (the reader is free to draw his or her own conclusions) even today, when threatened with exposure of my inadequacies, my immediate reaction is to make myself bigger and do my best to impress the would-be attacker with my abilities. Rather than suffer the exposure of my true incompetent self, I will build an awe-inspiring facade to head off the embarrassment.  

The puffed up, spiny exterior often keeps the assailant at bay. The real dilemma of using this sham to protect yourself, even occasionally, is that in order to sustain the perception, you have to stay big more and more frequently, until at last, you’re wearing this false persona anytime you’re around people.

I don’t have a lot of good advice on how to avoid this behavior, but sometimes, just recognizing our wrong behavior is the first step to recovery. 

Additionally, I do remember reading a great little saying that Chuck Swindoll quoted in one of his books a number of years ago.  He had seen the saying on a sign, posted in a kid’s clubhouse, explaining their rules.  It said:  
Nobody act big.
Nobody act small.
Everybody act medium.

It seems like pretty good advice. I’ve got only one more suggestion to add tonight.


“The fool shouts loudly, thinking to impress the world.”
(Marie de France~Medieval poet)

“Let another praise you and not you yourself…”
(Proverbs 27:2)

(Special thanks once again to my childhood friend, Jeannean Ryman for the use of her amazing photograph.  Jeannean has a gift for seeing the beauty in the ordinary and then giving us a glimpse, too.  You may view many wonderful examples like this one at if you are interested.)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved. 

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