Everyone knows the story of the Emperor and his “new clothes.” You know, the one where the emperor believes the lie that his new clothes are spun of gold, his administrators note the beauty of the design and how the gold fabric he wears dazzles in the sun, he parades down the street in his underwear: the gold threads, his fantasy, an illusion spun by the spin-masters surrounding him. The citizens of his kingdom line the streets applauding his magnificent appearance. Only one little child shouts out the truth—“but the emperor has no clothes!” No one listens, too enraptured in their collective illusion.
Would that we could learn from this little fable. We all get trapped in illusions that get so engrained we can’t see or hear the truth no matter how bold or how loud. Our minds become set: we get stuck in this mindset. Psychologists have studied how people see or don’t see certain pictures: where the picture of a vase can also be seen as two profiles, for example. Or the picture that, perceived one way looks like an elderly woman, yet when we change that figure to the background, the visage becomes that of a young woman. These optical illusions may give us some glimpses of how we might get caught in a narrow view of seeing things only one way. If we can’t change what we see as figural to being the background then we can’t change perspectives. With little psychological games of pictorial illusions, no matter. However, when we can’t grasp a wider perspective in the life and world around us, we are mired in a narrow mindset.
Nobody wants to be considered narrow minded. So why do we do this? Possibly because it feels safer. If who we place in authority says the illusion (the lie) is true, it is easier to go along with the “authority” and we jump on the conventional bandwagon. Hitler and his cohort knew well that, if a lie is spoken long enough and loud enough, it begins to take on a life of its own, as though it were true. Yet when the truth—“the voice of the child”—comes along, the truth is overwhelmed. It is not as razzle-dazzle tinsel as fantasy that preceded it.
I marvel at the inconsequential situations I have experienced where I know the facts about a situation and the other person is dead sure that their view is an absolute. Give them the data and still their fantasy feels more real and what they want to cling to than hearing a larger story. Folks don’t like their beliefs and mythologies debunked for the truth. While in China, I remarked to my friend while we climbed the stairs of the Great Wall: “Well, you know, it’s an urban legend that the great wall can be seen from space.” My friend was appalled at what he considered to be my skepticism. He didn’t want his myth to go poof. This is why we shoot messengers!
I see this in families quite often. One family member may become the truth teller about Dad’s abusive alcoholism while the rest of the family remains in denial. Perhaps Dad still manages to provide financially. The fear then is that, if the truth were faced, the family would be in monetary ruin. Denial is easier and shooting the messenger is “safer.”
Denial is a defense mechanism; but eventually, even after we shoot the messenger, we need to face the important truths in our lives: truths about who we are and what we do in our relationships; truths about our families and their history; truths about our community, our nation, our world. The old defense system of denial becomes obsolete and untenable.