Hans Christian Andersen first told the now familiar story of an Emperor who spent all of his kingdom’s disposable wealth on being well dressed. He had a change of clothes for every hour of the day, and he spent more time in his dressing room than managing the affairs of his empire.
Egotistical as he was, the Emperor easily fell into the trap of two swindlers who claimed they could weave the most magnificent clothes imaginable. For a large sum of money, these two promised the Emperor that he would be dressed in the finest tailored colors and patterns, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office.
The Emperor thought, “If I wore those clothes, I would be able to discover which men in my empire are unfit for their posts; and I could tell the wise men from the fools.” Of course, the Emperor was the fool. He dressed in his “new clothes” and went off in procession through the town.
In a colossal case of group-think, nobody would confess that the Emperor was naked for fear of being called a fool. At last a little child declared the obvious: “But he hasn’t got anything on!” This rippled through the crowd until finally everyone could admit the Emperor was indeed naked and had been duped by the two swindling weavers.
The Emperor shivered, for he suspected the crowd was right, but he could not admit it. He said, “The procession has got to go on.” So he walked more determined than ever, his head held high, proudly wearing a costume that wasn’t there.
The Emperor built a bogus façade, was stubbornly living in it, and had lost the ability to be honest with himself about his condition. Be certain, that when one loses the ability to be honest, he also loses the ability to change. It’s not only true of naked Emperors; it’s true of us all.
How many people have been trapped or ruined by the words, “The procession has got to go on?” Hiding an addiction; remaining in an abusive relationship; continually apologizing and covering for the failures of a spouse, a parent, or a business partner; maintaining religious beliefs for which they no longer have conviction; propping up a naked life: All because the prospect of being honest is more terrifying than the exertion of constantly camouflaging their charade.
The first and basic tenant of change, transformation, recovery, or repentance (you can choose your word) is this: One must “admit their powerlessness…and that life has become unmanageable.” For those addicted to the bottle, for those excruciatingly sensitive to what other people think, for those controlled by others, for who are just sick and tired of the life they have been leading, the beginning point is the same; the naked truth.
Some of us need to say, “I am a drunk,” because it is the truth. “I am selfish and self-centered,” because yes, we are. “I am greedy and will do anything to make a dollar off of someone,” because we will. “I am obsessed with how others view me, and I’ll do anything to gain their approval,” because that’s us.
No, we can’t wallow around in a “worm such as me” form of self-contempt, God no. That is just another destructive procession by another name. But there is no shame in admitting our actual condition; that we are weak, sometimes broken, and as needy and naked as the day we were born.
Such admissions are not easy. In fact, quite the opposite is true. It is very, very difficult because none of us wish to confess the uncomfortable truth that we have been duped or swindled out of a good portion of our lives.
But when the exhaustion of sustaining the sham, becomes stronger than our fear of being honest, the foolish procession of our lives will end and we can, by grace, be transformed. When we are honest about our open secrets, we can actually and finally change.