The Clothing is Optional

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Most of us have heard the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen.  There has been a surprising amount of commentary on the meaning of the tale.  To be honest, the fine details of the story escape me, but somewhere deep down I identify with the emperor.

For me, the two weavers who make the clothes for the emperor represent all the books you’ve read and the many perspectives you’ve considered in your continuing education.  They are filled with promises and clear lines of demarcation between the good and the bad, the insiders and the outsiders.  Our fear of being rejected as a fraud and being found on the wrong side of some line is so compelling.  We want to be good-guys.  We want to be insiders.  So we hide in plain sight.  We go with the flow trying to find a place for ourselves in the prevailing narrative.  We pass up every opportunity to speak freely and avoid every chance to offer our honest perspective.

The emperor’s ministers represent the people you surround yourself with.  In the story they pretended to see the beautiful cloth because they wanted to avoid disavowal.  These people care about you and want to see you flourish.  However, they too fear exposure and rejection so they hide by joining the same narrative.  A network of self-reinforcing dissimulation builds and it feels like there is no way out.  There is too much momentum.  There is too much social equity at stake.  If you spoke up, would you take everyone down with you?

The subjects of the kingdom represent the wider world, the people who are less inclined to feel a sense of devotion to you.  They scrutinize you with a singular concern for their own well-being.  They join the narrative because everybody else is doing it and they don’t want to stick out.  Now, the risks associated with standing up and addressing the truth are at their peak.  It would be suicide with all these people watching.

At this point the whole charade looks like a sitting duck.  It seems so precarious… like one child could come along and topple the whole thing with a word, that it would cost you everything, that it would destroy you.  This is where the analogy breaks down for me.  For me, the child represents another layer of fear.  The notion that the smallest and most vulnerable characters in this narrative now have the power to destroy you with a word is devastating.  The charade teeters on the edge of a knife.  We’ve imagined a number of possible scenarios leading to our downfall and we replay them feeling their pain and shame.  This is where most of us live…

There is only one choice left…the choice to stop hiding, the choice to emerge, the choice to stand up and tell it like you see it, the choice to engage with all those people around you as you really are, the choice to be vulnerable…

And then you can begin… you can begin to change the world.