The Devil’s Retirement Story

“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.”

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

The first time I heard Earl Nightingale’s melodious voice was at a sales meeting while training to become a telephone-book-cover advertising salesman.  The tape recorder lay atop the hotel conference-room table and six of us listened intently: it was “Acres of Diamonds,” from “Lead the Field.”  The owner of the company, Bob Trudeau, owned a complete set of “Lead the Field.”  He played a tape at every sales meeting to start things off with an inspiring message.  “Lead the Field” still is available by Nightingale-Conant; in my subjective opinion, you’ll never listen to anything more inspirational.

Mr. Nightingale’s deep hypnotic voice and language agility put him right up there with the great communicators of his time: he had the Power of Billy Graham, sans the preaching; the Trust of Walter Cronkite; and the Inspiration of Winston Churchill.  I loved listening to him.  His eloquence was the equivalent of Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma.”

“The Devil’s Wedge”

I was driving one afternoon a year after that sales meeting when an Earl Nightingale radiobroadcast entitled “The Devil’s Wedge” came on.  “The Devil’s Wedge” was taken from an old fable—The Devil’s Best Tool—Mr. Nightingale used to make his point, which hit me like a thunderbolt and stayed with me all these years.

Soon after, I created my own version of the fable’s premise—the Devil selling his tools of the trade.  I’ve told the story dozens of times over the passing decades, often on airplanes and usually when I sat next to someone I sensed was down in the dumps.  I hope you like it.

 Eternity is a Long Time

The Devil—also known as Beelzebub, Satan, Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, or any one of 38 other monikers—had been in the business of tormenting mankind since the origin of man’s reign on Earth.  Business never slackened and he was wealthy beyond human imagination.  His tools, the weapons of his trade, were all the negative emotions which had escaped from Pandora’s Box into his gleeful clutches—anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, revenge, greed, superstition, envy, doubt, worry, and a host of poisonous others.  He had a complete monopoly.  He used these corrosive toxins to destroy man at every opportunity, and to say he enjoyed his work would be the biggest understatement of all time—he relished it.

However, eternity is a long time and after countless millennia, the Devil became bored with doing the same old same old, over and over and over again, and contemplated retirement.  He possessed wealth far beyond his eternal needs, and if the business wasn’t fun anymore, why keep at it?  He owned a plush ten-thousand-acre resort in the Caribbean which rivaled Atlantis, and perhaps it was time to kick back and enjoy the fruits of his toil: some deep‑sea fishing; golf; world travel for enjoyment instead of business; food fit for the gods, prepared by a team of four‑star chefs; the largest library in the world; a team of masseuses; plus an endless list of other goodies.  It sounded perfect.

Evil Angels

There were a bunch of evil angels working upstairs for the competition.  For centuries they had tried to buy into the tormenting-mankind business, but were stymied by the Devil’s refusal to part with any of his destructive weapons.  He was confident he’d have no difficulty finding buyers for these torturous thorns‑in‑the‑heart of mankind, no difficulty at all.

It came to pass that the Devil conducted an auction and, one to each evil angel, sold off all the banes of Pandora’s Box.

Numero Uno

Except one, the one he called Numero Uno, far and away the most powerful of the lot; the one which, after all others had proved ineffective, never failed to bring man down to his suffering knees.  No way would he part with Numero Uno.  He would keep it as an insurance policy: What if retirement didn’t suit him?  What if he missed the action and wanted to return to the business?  By keeping Numero Uno, he’d have something to fall back on—the deadliest of the deadly.  So he placed Numero Uno in a safety‑deposit box where it remained hidden and dormant, and for a spell of time man stood at the pinnacle of his reign—never happier, never more prosperous, and never more spiritually content.

Oh, the evil angels were out there, all right, plying their new trade, with all the fury of a lynch mob.  Man still suffered from their attacks, but with Numero Uno out of the picture, things were hardly catastrophic.  All things considered, it truly was the best of times.

For a number of years the Devil enjoyed his retirement; so did the evil angels, who competed with each other the same cutthroat way other businesses do—telecommunication companies, for example.


Right up until the Devil had his Great Epiphany and realized, hey, this easy living had been fine for a while, but an eternity of it wasn’t for him, thank you very much.  His ennui before retirement was now in the distant past, he missed the action more than he could bear.  He rented an office, got out good old Numero Uno from the safety deposit box (it was all he had left), dusted it off and got back on the bicycle, so to speak, and was right back in the business of tormenting man.

Man’s golden age was over quicker than you could say, “The Devil made me do it.”

The evil angels cried foul.  Collectively they possessed far more weapons than the Devil (quantity, that is, not quality), but alas, they couldn’t compete.  Numero Uno was far too powerful all by itself, than all their weapons put together.  It was a junior-high football team versus the New England Patriots; Goldwater trying to unseat Johnson in 1964; the Duchy of Grand Fenwick at war with the United States of America in The Mouse That Roared.

It was nolo contendere.

Full Circle

After the dust settled, the evil angels begged the Devil to buy them out, at a loss of course, which he gladly did.  Everything had come full circle and the Devil once again was the sole tormenter of man.  The evil angels, wings in hand, went back upstairs and asked for their old jobs back, got them—forgiveness is prevalent in Heaven—and never again attempted to get back into the tormenting business.

They’d had everything but Numero Uno, but it hadn’t been nearly enough; the Devil had only Numero Uno, but it was more than enough.

Numero Uno, the poison which is to man what kryptonite is to Superman.

Numero Uno, the worst calamity which can befall man.

What do you think it is?

Nothing so Paralyzing

Discouragement.  (In the original fable it was the Wedge of Discouragement.)  Like a malignant tumor, one naked‑to‑the‑eye cell of it metastasizes until your spirit dies and awaits burial.  You’re finished, kaput.  All the other negative emotions—fear, hatred, jealousy, envy, revenge, anger, greed, superstition, doubt, worry—will lead you to take action, albeit not necessarily healthy action; but discouragement begets self pity, which freezes you up like a catatonic schizophrenic in a mental ward; it immobilizes you—you sit and mope in a cloud of despairing inertia, you do nothing but ponder the terms of your surrender.

Discouragement was the Devil’s weapon of choice when he attacked me during five ugly weeks in Nashville, which I write about in my upcoming book.  He came at me with good old Numero Uno and, I’m embarrassed to say, he almost got me, that’s how vulnerable man is to discouragement, even the normally mentally strong.  Getting past that dark episode is satisfying to me as surviving kidney cancer.

If (when) it happens to you, recognize it for what it is and battle it with all you’ve got.  It’s an illusion designed to trick you into full submission.

Send the Devil packing and be of good cheer.