Wednesday, January 2, 2019


So, while tucking Jordan (10) into bed one night recently, he complained that the tag on his pajamas was irritating. I made the comparison to Andersen's story of The Princess and The Pea. As I hoped, Jordan asked me to tell him that story. I began, but was cut short quite abruptly by my wife, who demeaned the story and did not wish to hear it. I gave Jordan a quick synopsis to explain my literary allusion and then, at his request, launched into another story: The Fisherman and His Wife.

The next morning, my wife explained that she detested the story of The Princess and The Pea because it objectifies women. Fair enough. But after revisiting the original, to be certain I recalled it correctly, I find a curious situation: the story itself defines a princess as someone with sensitivity; the objection to the story demonstrates sensitivity. Hmmmm.

Look at it this way. The Princess and The Pea is a kind of Cinderella variant (arguably another objectifying fairy tale) in which the "true" princess is concealed by outward appearances. Cinderella is an impoverished, ash-stained, serving girl; the Pea Princess arrives in a storm, bedraggled and mud-stained, and very much presenting as "lower class" so that the Queen Mother instigates her test: placing a pea beneath 20 mattresses.

Andersen claimed to have heard this story as a child, the likely variant coming from Sweden. He clearly takes poetic license in his version and is believed to have identified with the princess in his story. [Andersen felt that he was never fairly recognized by the upper social classes.]

So, yes, in a way, the story objectifies the woman inasmuch as it suggests that a true princess is frail and dainty enough to be discomforted by a tiny annoyance, undetectable by any ordinary person. Yet it could be argued that a "true" princess (or prince for that matter) is very sensitive and therefore capable of compassion, understanding, and ...?

Sensitivity can be both a desired and an undesired trait. My allusion to the story in the moment of my child's complaint could be a criticism suggesting 'you're just too sensitive, like a pampered little prince.' However, it could suggest 'you are a sensitive boy, and that makes you a real prince.'

Of course now I have to consider our conflicted relationship with royalty. The popularity of Cinderella, for example, suggests that everyone feels like unrecognized royalty. There is an innate sense that we are worthy, lurking beneath a sense that we are devalued by the world around us. But if the sense of being royal is contingent on a hierarchy wherein others are considered less than royal, we have a problem.

I rather like Buckminster Fuller's insistence that we make the world work without disadvantaging anyone:

“Make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.”

This can be hard to swallow if you take a Robin Hood solution to inequality and insist that we take from rich to advantage the poor. Fuller is asking that we do not disadvantage anyone, royalty included. Because, of course, we are all royalty and worthy of a place in society, a place at the table, a roof over our heads, and a mattress free of discomfort. Which, according to Bucky, is entirely achievable today, with the proper, comprehensive anticipatory design thinking.

Yet, if we are to achieve such a world in which these things are made manifest, we will need those currently enjoying the positions of princes and princesses to possess real sensitivity.

Here follows a good discussion with Diane Trautman
She writes: 
"I didn’t recall the story, so I went back to read it.

Yes, women are always being measured by their appearance, so that is objectification. But beyond the story’s moral implication that we shouldn’t assess others by appearance, I see the princess as someone who is sensitive as a result of conditioning. Having been raised in luxury, the smallest deviation is discernible and annoying. Her response identifies her as a member of the privileged class and so worthy of acceptance by her “people.” Someone of lower status may not notice the hard spot and she would be less inclined to complain about it to someone with whom she wished to ingratiate herself.

The princess may, or may not be a kind and compassionate person. I couldn’t tell from the story. It would be nice to think that her sensitivity extends to others.

I think that people are searching for that sense of worthiness, because we are disconnected from their true selves. Thus, we have celebrity worship, the desire to accumulate money and the trappings of it, and the willingness to be led by the wealthy in the hopes of rising to their level.

All of that makes it more difficult for people to focus on cooperative efforts that will improve the lives of everyone. When you believe that life is a zero sum game, you base your survival on your ability to outwit anyone you consider to be a rival. Combine that with wounded egos and pathological behaviors and you have dictators and greedy “royalty” in many spheres of endeavor. How to convince the majority of people and leaders that their ultimate success and survival depends on the betterment of all peoples is a huge challenge.

I guess that leads back to a comment I read about Buckminster Fuller on in a piece by Leila Acaroglu: “Bucky also said, that if you want to change a system, don’t fight the existing forces, design a version that makes the old one obsolete. For me this translates, as designing new normals.”

Maybe creating a new narrative is the best approach for this new year.

Getting back to your response to Jordan, I have no doubt that he is a true reflection of his sensitive, kind and caring parents. However, like many of us, he is more highly responsive to touch or sound or other sensations. Good for him that he is aware enough of his needs to acknowledge that at his age."
My repliy:
"Excellent points, thank you!
I agree that Andersen's princess does seem to be of the privileged class and more concerned with self-comfort than with sensitivity to others.
Your quote from Bucky is one of my favorites. His point that we must create a new version so compelling that the old one is simply abandoned is well demonstrated by current media determinism: invent a smart phone and the world changes its way of doing things overnight. Bucky was a firm believer in the power of technology to lead change. Language and story are cognitive technologies. The storyteller can take a cue from Bucky and discover new narratives that make the old ones obsolete.
Which brings me back to our little princess and her pea. I see the possibility that the 'true' princess reveals herself by virtue of her sensitivity to others, noticing another person's discomfort. I will give that some more consideration.
As for creating a new normal, I think we are already in the midst of conflicting new normals vying for ascendance. Normalizing tolerance and truthfulness v. normalizing intolerance and mendacity. I am encouraged, however, that efforts to rethink self-governance such as in the Occupy Movement, efforts to expose injustice and exploitation as we see in #MeToo and judicial reform, and so on, suggest that America may ultimately gain the sensitivity to stop piling up the soft mattresses and deal with the niggling pea!"
"I believe in the power of technology, but what concerns me is the human capacity to foresee and prevent the misuse of it. As you say, technology has allowed us to share vast amounts of knowledge and engage people in social movements that are changing society at an unprecedented rate. And we can be thankful that green technologies are leading us toward greater sustainability. The downside is that tech industries will abuse their workers and use their products against us if we lack foresight and effective political leaders.

Thus, we need an educated populace to elect and empower leaders who will enact appropriate constraints. And those leaders need vision and the ability to sell that vision. The teachers and storytellers, provide the counterbalance to Fuller’s enduring faith in technology. In addition to creating an informed electorate, they might become leaders themselves or train politicians to develop compelling narratives. (Hmmm. New terrain for storytellers as consultants?)

True, we are in a struggle to establish a new normal. Had we not experienced the unmasking of intolerance, misogyny, hatred, greed and exploitation in 2016, we might have continued to accept the unacceptable niggling pea—especially if it was a greater bother to someone other than us. So cheers to the discomfort that compels us to take action!"
Thank you Diane!  

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