The Voice of the Child: Finding the Courage to Say What Others Won't
By William D. Parham, Ph.D., ABPP
As told in a tale first penned in 1837, two con men, capitalizing on the vulnerability of the emperor of unparalleled vanity and insatiable desire to soak up the admiration of everyone in his kingdom, positioned the emperor to listen to an idea that, if executed, would make him even more adored. The two swindlers proposed to weave a luxurious garment with fabric so fine that all persons in his kingdom who were unfit, unsuitable, useless, and stupid would not be able to see the extravagance of their promised newly tailored vestment. With the emperor’s permission, the two swindlers begin preparing the garment, going through motions akin to the meticulously nuanced rhythm of master tailors. They were so convincingly authentic and professional that the emperor and his servants and handmaidens looked on in absolute amazement. Their artistry as tailors resulted in the two con men producing a fashion creation at which the entire kingdom would marvel.
They presented their finished masterpiece to the emperor and, along with his loyal staff, assisted the emperor with dressing up in his new attire that was beyond compare. You see, the con being played was that the two men were not tailoring a garment at all. Their pantomime was enacted with no needle, no thread, and no luxurious fabric used to tailor a garment. Not wanting to be seen unfit, unsuitable, useless, and stupid, the emperor and his loyal attendants kept their mouths shut.
The day arrived for the emperor to parade himself through the town. It was pegged as a grand affair, so everyone in the land turned out to witness what they believed was going to be a remarkable showcase of flair and fashion. All onlookers looked with perplexed awe at the emperor as he strolled through the streets waving at his loyal subjects who he believed were praising him. Not wanting to appear unfit, unsuitable, useless, and stupid, the onlookers kept waving their hands while keeping their mouths shut with a smile.
Just as the ‘buzz’ in the crowd became more noticeable and the emperor’s self-adulation more apparent, a young child, innocent to the goings-on, blurted out his truth saying unapologetically, “the emperor is not wearing any clothes!” The crowd admired the courage of the young child for sharing his revelation. His honesty quietly challenged them to stop pretending that they saw something that was not really there. His sense of agency fueled their commitment to no longer see themselves as unfit, unsuitable, useless, or stupid. They also decided that they would use their voice and call out things as they are and cease colluding with illusions promoted as truth.
Their excitement about being honest, embracing obvious truths, and reclaiming their sense of self rose to such an audible crescendo that the emperor snapped out of his trance of narcissistic self-worship. The emperor then felt forced to shift his focus to the garment he was never really wearing. Despite the shame in what he was now seeing, the emperor quietly acknowledged the always-present truth yet decided to keep up the pretense anyway.
The fallout of COVID-19 is still mounting and consequentially, continues to uncover always-present truths about ourselves. Shelter-in-place mandates have pushed many to the margins of their emotional reserves resulting in anxieties, depression, frustrations, traumas, sadness, uncertainties, and life dissatisfactions that were always present yet hiding in plain sight in the distracting busyness of life daily routines. The always-present truths about disparate, adverse impacts of the coronavirus on African American communities and other communities of color have surfaced, yet again, revealing long-accepted observations of inequities in systems such as health care, education, and economics.
Our thirst for hugs, validation, social approval, in-person smiles, sounds of bustling cities, and friendly faces from colleagues, friends, and family have never been more apparent. Our yearning to reconnect to people and places with whom we interacted regularly is as strongly felt now as our promise to not take those people and places for granted as we once did. Persons working at fitness clubs, dine-in restaurants, hair and nail salons, convenience stores, airports, rental car stations, craft and hobby stores, shoes and clothing outlets, city parks, hiking trails, and hotels and motels will, similarly, embrace anew their appreciation for the energy you bring when entering their spaces. And, perhaps COVID-19 is the child in our crowd of animated hustle and bustle of daily patterns and routines inviting consideration for us to really see and value the relational capital hiding right in front of us. The voice of the child in the crowd also invites us to hold on to principles of integrity, fairness and social equity, resisting all pressures to do otherwise.
The cries of George Floyd calling for his deceased mother as he was about to take his last breath on a Minneapolis street was the child in our crowd of collusion with historic and current systemic injustices. As a consequence of hearing the voice of the child, will we show our courage to unapologetically continue to reveal social injustices and inequities rooted in eugenic philosophies spawned by America’s original sin of racism? To what degree will we challenge ourselves and others to stop pretending that we have been seeing something (e.g., social justice, systemic equity, level playing fields) that is not really there? Will our sense of agency give rise to our commitment to no longer convince ourselves that we have nothing to say, aren’t qualified to speak, aren’t experienced enough to share perspectives, strong enough to act in ways consistent with moving the needle of real change or wise enough to cease colluding with illusions promoted as truth? The following link represents an example of “the voice of the child” action, an L.A. resident responding to the detention of four African Americans who arrived in Los Angeles to celebrate a birthday of a 71-year old family member. https://www.instagram.com/p/CBHNgyvBbVv/
The voice of the child in the fable also doubles as a mirror reflecting what the people of the kingdom actually saw and really believed about themselves. They were smart, well-able, and wise but were afraid to lay bare their personal truths fearing the risk of isolation from others who, as it turned out, likely felt the same way and need to self-protect.
The clarion voices of the child in the persons of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Adama Traoré, Trayvon Martin, to name only a few, continue to call our collective attention to opportunities to be and do better. Each of our named and unnamed brothers and sisters may not have made it home to their earthly families. Consider however, if only for a moment, that while they did not make it home, that they did arrive home safely to our Father who deemed that their work here on earth was done. What is the work that remains for us to do here on earth with whatever time we have left before our Father calls us home? Let’s find out together! Until next time …