Many years ago there lived an emperor who thought so much of new clothes that he spent all his money in order to obtain them; his only ambition was to be always well dressed. One day two swindlers came to his city and declared themselves to be weavers who could manufacture the finest cloth to be imagined. Not only were the colours and patterns exceptionally beautiful but the clothes made of their material possessed the wonderful quality of being invisible to any man who was unfit for his office or unpardonably stupid. “That must be wonderful cloth” thought the emperor “If I were to be dressed in a suit made of this cloth I should be able to find out which men in my empire were unfit for their places and I could distinguish the clever from the stupid.”
(Extracted from a translation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale)
Traditional stories are wonderful teachings of the predicament and dilemmas of being human. And, many of them are invitations into new depths of being at the midlife transition.
In the above extract of a Hans Christian Andersen tale, our emperor is narrowly focussed on being well dressed. He is seeking to bolster his self esteem with looking, rather than feeling, powerful.
He decides to send a trusted minister to see how the weavers are progressing. Fearing that his failure to see anything would expose him as incompetent, the minister colludes with illusion and does not report the truth. By the time the garment is finished several courtiers have reported on the beauty of the cloth and design, so that the original fearful deceit has become a collusive deception with everyone questioning their ability to ‘see’.
When the day arrives for the emperor to put on the new suit and give a viewing to his expectant public, the emperor likewise pretends that he can see the outfit, as does his audience, the public. However, a small child who is not yet conditioned announces out loud the reality – that the king is naked!
This is the story of how ‘reality’ is easily influenced by our beliefs. If we put ourselves in the position of the emperor, what, we might ask, do the clothes represent?
The story helps us to remember the child-like capacity we all have to see through the bullshit. As we become conditioned to the rules and ways of a societal context, all too often we choose to suspend our innate knowing.
During a midlife transition, the ‘ego suit’ that we have been creating, wearing and perfecting for years may no longer feel as desirable as it used to. Do we make repairs hoping to fool ourselves or others? Or, do we experiment with taking off our ‘garments’, layer by layer? Clearly, we don’t want to risk being the laughing stock of our workplace or community. There are consequences for being a ‘naked emperor’.
However, it is essential that we do divest ourselves of our erroneous beliefs and judgments. This de-cluttering of mind is the main work in traditional spiritual pathways. Then it becomes possible to access a type of inner space or freedom from manic habits of trying to live up to others expectations.
Part of the struggle, in any transition, is to be in the transition rather than finding quick solutions that relieve us of accepting our nakedness, our exposure and vulnerability. Trying to avoid it is the same as the hope that the grief stage of bereavement can be missed. We have many messages in our society to ‘just move on and forget the past.’ However, if we do not live the space between the old and the new, we remain hooked by the past and like the emperor, threatened in our potency and open to manipulation. Our deep investment in the old cannot be loosened until we value the nakedness as a necessary stage of the transition.
Extracted and adapted from an article by Chris Robertson and Cathy Rowan, The Leaders New Clothes – Paradigm change and Negative Capability © 2002