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A mentor of mine shared this story with me several years ago.

John the Dwarf—also known as Saint John Kolobos—was a Coptic desert father born in the year 339 in the town of Thebes, Egypt.

Given his moniker, I’m guessing he was not a tall man.

He was raised in poverty and joined the monastery at the age of eighteen when he moved to the desert with his older brother, under the tutelage of Saint Pambo.

Living in isolation and austerity, historical records suggest that John ate only one meal per day for his entire life consisting of flatbread and vegetables.

As the story goes, one day Saint Pambo brought Father John a very dry tree branch and instructed him to water it daily.

The nearest water source was 12 miles away.

Faithfully, John buried the seemingly dead piece of wood in the ground and walked back and forth, day and night, for three years—watering the branch.

One day, John awoke to the glow of the early morning sunrise to see several small green leaves protruding from the lifeless desert soil.

The small shoot eventually blossomed into a large fruit tree.

When the tree had matured, Saint Pambo reportedly took a branch with ripe fruit through the monastery saying, “Take, and eat from the fruit of obedience.”

A new monastery—The Tree of Obedience—was built around the tree.

The Roman Senator Postumian recorded seeing the tree in 402 on a trip to Egypt.

Saint John died in the modern day city of Suez at the age of 66.

Desert seasons

There are seasons of life where it feels like nothing is happening, nothing is growing—these are desert seasons.

No matter how hard we try, we don’t see any progress.

I have to imagine this small statured man walking through the harsh desert every night for 24 miles thinking, “Why am I doing this?!”

But there is deep wisdom in this story.

Some lessons in life cannot be learned any other way.

There can be years of carrying heavy water buckets, for long distances, in the middle of the night, through the vast eternal emptiness of the desert.

Maybe you are in a season like that now.

There are years of parenting when it feels like no matter what you do, your child is lost.

There are years of marriage when external forces press in so hard you don’t know how you will make it.

There are seasons of work where you may feel like your boss doesn’t appreciate you, and all your hard work is not paying off.

There are seasons of health where the best you can do is survive another day.

While these times in life require extreme effort with seemingly no results, they often produce the inner “fruit” of grit, persistence, faithfulness, loyalty, discipline, love, and selflessness.

Psychologist and best-selling author Benjamin Hardy points out—heroes are the products of the situations and environments that have shaped them; they are not developed any other way. And it goes without saying that heroes are never developed by comfortable situations. His books are chalk full of research and historical examples that support his claim.

I have to imagine that the kind of person John the Dwarf became was largely shaped by this apparently crazy assignment his mentor gave him.

Take action 

Journal this weekend about these questions:

  • What dry branch are you watering?
  • What is the life lesson?
  • How can this situation be used to shape you into the kind of person you want to become?

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

Want more? Suggested Resources Below




Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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