Do you feel scared or lose heart when you see that long-awaited goal before you? If so, you’re not alone. Many marathon runners “hit the wall” at mile 23. Doctoral candidates often fail to finish their dissertations. And in The Divine Comedy, after going through hell and purgatory, Dante faces a wall of fire before entering the earthly paradise.

What is this wall of fire? What is so frightening about finishing something we care so deeply about? Are we wrestling with a sense of inadequacy? Afraid that the final result won’t live up to our expectations?

Do we fear the changes in life that this achievement may bring? Will it destroy our comfortable world and thrust us into the undiscovered country of terra incognita, the land we have only dreamed about? Do we doubt this wished-for land is real, and like many early Renaissance explorers, feel fear that we’ll fall off the edge of the known world into the Great Unknown?

What is this wall of fire that stands between us and our much-anticipated paradise? Is it a lack of faith in our capacity to achieve our dreams? In his insightful book, The Big Leap (2009), psychologist Gay Hendricks calls it an “upper limit problem,” a tendency to block ourselves when we approach a new level in life.

Dante shrank back in fear before the wall of fire. He almost turned away, but the thought of his beloved Beatrice waiting for him on the other side gave him the courage to go forward. The power of love transcended his fears and led him to walk through the flaming wall. Perhaps we all need such a vision to move us forward--a higher meaning that takes us beyond our limited egos and opens our hearts to embrace a new reality.

Moving beyond our fears requires a leap of faith. The next time you face that wall of fire between you and your goal, ask yourself, “How does this goal connect with my deepest values?” If you can make the connection, you will find yourself like Dante, transcending your fears to catch a glimpse of paradise.


Alighieri, D. (2008). The Divine Comedy. (Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). New York, NY: Sterling. Originally published 1867; originally written 1318). The wall of fire is in canto 27 of the Purgatorio.

Hendricks, G. (2009). The Big Leap: Conquer your hidden fear and take life to the next level. New York, NY: HarperCollins. A valuable book for identifying and transcending persisent blocks to personal growth.


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

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