There Is No Emperor, and the Clothes Are the Problem

In 1837, Hans Christian Andersen put a new spin on a medieval folk tale to teach his readers a more contemporary lesson: When something is off, it’s better to point it out than to just let it slip by.

In Andersen’s case, the slipping was done by a naked emperor who, fooled by two con artists, believed he was wearing lavish garments invisible to anyone of inferior intellect. Startled as the crowd was by the emperor’s “new clothes,” no one dared call out a nobleman for his foolishness — except for a lone boy, too young to be encumbered by society’s obligations. After he points out that the ruler is, in fact, naked, everyone gets to have a good laugh — and to shamefully remember that they should have trusted their own eyes and ears.

As modern-day individuals, we now have the opposite problem, Peter Russell claims in Letting Go of Nothing: We’re wearing too many metaphorical clothes, and they’re only weighing us down. Identity can be a heavy burden.

“Believing our own sense of self to be real, and different from other selves, we look for ways to describe and define it,” Russell explains. “We identify with how we are seen in the world, the roles we play, our social status and profession; with our nationality, our name, our family; with our beliefs, our education, our interests — all the things we come up with when asked, ‘Who are you?'”

Every piece of the identity puzzle is like an item of clothing, Russell thinks. We add layer upon layer, dressing ourselves up and up and up. But actually… “In this case, however, rather than the emperor having no clothes, we see lots of clothes but we find no emperor underneath.”

What Russell refers to is the perceiving, witnessing awareness through which we experience our entire lives. Even if someone stripped us of all our titles, history, and, yes, clothes, that awareness would still be there. In other words: You don’t need an identity to have a life.

While it would be rather impractical to go through life completely without any markers, we can choose to carry fewer badges on our uniform — and we can remember that even the ones we decide to wear will only last for a while.

Whether you are an emperor or a weaver, don’t get too wrapped up in yourself. At the end of the day, there is nothing underneath except our shared humanity, and that is, has been, and always will be enough.