THE SYMBOLIC LIFE (Winter 2009)
During the summer solstice we celebrate the power and strength of the sun, a symbol for the light of consciousness. But just as the winter solstice marks the darkest time of the year and celebrates the return of the light, the summer solstice marks the sun’s pinnacle and the beginning of shorter days and eventually more darkness. Symbolically this time evokes questions as to how darkness creeps into human life. Myths and fairy tales have attempted to address such issues for centuries.
One such tale that is worth mentioning in this regard is the Hans Christian Andersen story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In this fairy tale a situation develops in which a pompous emperor enamored with his wardrobe is duped by two swindlers, posing as weavers, into purchasing an invisible set of new clothes. Their ruse works because the swindlers convince the emperor that not only are the clothes they weave extraordinarily beautiful, but the cloth they use has the strange quality of being invisible to anyone who is unfit for office or unforgivably stupid.
Thus the emperor believes that the clothes will not only help him stand out more, but they will help him to determine who is fit to serve him. But of course now the emperor’s most trusted counselors will not tell the emperor that they don’t actually see anything for fear that they will be deemed stupid or lose their office. Finally the emperor himself falls into the same trap when he dares to see how the weaving is going; he too doesn’t want to appear foolish when he sees nothing. The swindlers work extremely hard at feigning their work and make a lot of money in the process. Everyone goes along with this insidious charade until there is a grand procession down the streets of the town praising the wardrobe of the naked emperor. Only when a young boy cries out: “But he doesn’t have anything on!” are the people present able to see and speak the truth.
Such a story can have multiple meanings, and I would like to reflect on a few of them. This story often comes to my mind when I listen to people struggling with the painful fact that those around them don’t see what to them, like the child in the story, is so obvious. For various reasons people within a family, work situation, or even a religious or psychological organization see only what they are led to believe that they should see. For to see the truth might mean facing shame or humiliation, that is, that one must be stupid. Equally disturbing would be losing one’s position within the organization. In the new summer movie, Robin Hood, the king asks if any man will tell him the truth about their crusade. When the archer Robin does, the king congratulates him for his honesty, but nonetheless places Robin and those associated with him in the stocks. Who would want such a reward for honesty? This king does not really want to have his views challenged.
The film Avatar subtly weaves a similar story contrasting those who seek the mineral “unobtanium,” and who do so at all cost, with a native humanoid race whose primary value is their nature based religion on a very distant moon. In between are the small group of scientists who have come to recognize the extraordinary value of the natural world and the mysterious way the various life forms are linked. The destructive consequence of a single minded vision that disparages all others is the greatest threat to this mysterious world and those who reside there, and also those who would want to learn to understand it.
In the fairy tale only the child speaks truly about what everyone sees, the child hasn’t learned to put on airs, to create a persona, as Jung calls the face we present to the world. This “false” self can trap a person into becoming what others may want or believe, but not who one really is. “Swindlers” are about weaving fantasies that seduce us into false or unobtainable goals that actually hide the truth about ourselves and life and hamper our ability to see clearly the reality that we and others must face, and the dangerous consequences inherent in misguided actions.
Yet with all these external temptations we should also remember that the “swindlers” are not just outside, but inside. Something within can tempt us to seek only one aspect of life, as if it were of the highest value, a special something that is off the mark, and not reflective of our fullest self. A mere piece of our personality wants to be the whole story, rather than a life that offers balance and wholeness, and a more authentic relationship to others and the world about us.
The late John Wooden, known for so many decades for his quiet wisdom, might have the most succinct advice for the emperor in our story and that part of all of us. “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
Editor: Steve Galipeau