“Delusion detests focus and romance provides the veil.”
~ Suzanne Finnamore
Press play to hear an audio enhancement as you read.
The Emperor’s New Clothes, Danish story teller Hans Christian Andersen’s best known story, has become a catch phrase for delusion and the difficulty of speaking truth to power.
In the story, two weavers promise an emperor “a new suit of clothes that they say is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to say that they do not see any suit of clothes on him for fear that they will be seen as “unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent”. Finally, a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” 1
Delusion is a hard habit to break. Delusion defies logic and persists, even when confronted by the most revealing facts. After all, in Andersen’s tale the emperor was stark naked. But onlookers enthusiastically denied that, and it took an innocent child to break the spell.
One convincing proof I’ve encountered that confirms our obstinate refusal to acknowledge and state the obvious is the story about how ostriches bury their heads in the sand to avoid danger. On his website, Mark Wenning, reports on the origins of this belief.
“This comes from the supposed habit of ostriches hiding when faced with attack by predators. The story was first recorded by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, who suggested that ostriches hide their heads in bushes. Ostriches don’t hide, either in bushes or sand, although they do sometimes lie on the ground to make themselves inconspicuous. The ‘burying their head in the sand’ myth is likely to have originated from people observing them lowering their heads when feeding.” 2
The longevity of this myth confirms our willingness to accept authoritative accounts at face value and to perpetuate them for years by failing to examine even the most obvious facts. In this case, what’s obvious is that if ostriches did indeed bury their heads in the sand they would now be extinct… because they would have all asphyxiated.
In Andersen’s story, a child finally blurted out the truth. And, he was censured for his honesty. He spoke truth to power and that wasn’t popular. Of course, that remains true today. But what that child demonstrated is instructive. As Jack Zipes, an author who writes about Andersen, explained: “Sight becomes insight, which, in turn, prompts action.”
A further comment from Wikepedia states, “Scholars have noted that the phrase, “Emperor’s new clothes”, has become a standard metaphor for anything that smacks of pretentiousness, pomposity, social hypocrisy, collective denial, or hollow ostentatiousness.” 3
Do we see any of that today?
We can take our pick from a long list of denials. Here are just three:
– Medical doctors receive less than 25 hours of instruction on nutrition during their many years of rigorous training. We now face epidemics of obesity, cancer, depression, etc. But there’s no official, acknowledged connection between what we eat and our health.
– NOAA confirms that 16 of the last 17 years have been the hottest on record, yet our American president pronounces that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.
– The financial crash of 2008 occurred because of deceitful lending practices that continue today with increased fervor, and the same financial experts who didn’t see that crash coming assure us there could never be another one.
Delusion, it’s a hard habit to break. But it helps to explore the ramifications of Zipes’s comment further: “Sight becomes insight which, in turn, prompts action.”
All of us have had the experience of seeing something we missed before. Those moments of revelation have the potential to inspire insights which can lead to new action. But the key is that moment between sight and insight. That’s where change can be initiated.
This story plays out in the climactic scene in the war film Bridge Over the River Kwai. Alec Guinness’s character has an epiphany. He “sees” through his delusion. This leads him to a powerful insight. He says, “Oh my God, what have I done?” Almost immediately, he takes action. He falls on a plunger, blows up the bridge he’s been so proud of, and the train carrying ammunition intended to kill allied soldiers, plunges into the river below.
It took extreme pressure to provoke his awakening. What will it take for you and me? We live in a crisis ridden world yet, so far, the official strategy remains “business as usual.”
Railing against “them” is an avoidance strategy. Awakening to the truth is a very personal matter. We can choose to be vigilant about our own delusions and turn what we see into insights that lead us into new behaviors.
That may or may not inspire others, but it’s the example all true leaders provide.