”Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” – Marie Curie
In the famous fairy tale, The Princess and the Pea, by Hans Christian Andersen, a young woman’s identity as a true princess is tested by three peas placed under 20 mattresses. Due to her being a true princess, she is so sensitive to the presence of the peas, she is unable to sleep, thus confirming her legitimacy and allaying the fears of the prince he might choose his mate wrongly.
In a letter to Letter 131 to Milton Waldman, J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings said, ”Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.” So, what is the religious truth of The Princess and the Pea, and how is it relevant to our current situation?
Fear of the Unknown?
The most obvious answer might be that appearances are potentially deceiving because the overly sensitive princess did not look very royal at first blush: “It was a princess standing out there in front of the gate. But, good gracious! what a sight the rain and the wind had made her look. The water ran down from her hair and clothes; it ran down into the toes of her shoes and out again at the heels. And yet she said that she was a real princess.” And indeed she proved her “princessness,” as it were. Or perhaps it was a nod to the fear of the unknown as symbolized by a stranger. Maybe the prince has some longstanding trust issue!
However, I think there is a deeper psychological insight that can be gained from this narrative by focusing on the sensitivity aspect of the story. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that we should be a bit more sensitive to people around us, especially the ones we love. Nice sentiment, but also too obvious for me.
Maybe what Anderson was getting at was the dynamic of the inner life, the traumas, the pain, the conflicts that savage us in our subconscious, just below the surface of our consciousness, causing us to feel uncomfortable, to have a sense of unease, to toss and turn, to be haunted by bad dreams. Perhaps Anderson is warning us, or better yet, advising us, to “take arms against a sea of troubles”
and in so doing, put them, and ourselves to rest.
This is the unconscious work on repressed or suppressed psychic material that both Sigmund Freud and his contemporary, Carl Jung were focused on in their work. Freud once said, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways,” getting at the same truth Anderson cleverly disguises as a children’s story.
Jung had a similar view, stating, “Repression causes what is called a systematic amnesia, where only specific memories or groups of ideas are withdrawn from recollection. In such cases a certain attitude or tendency can be detected on the part of the conscious mind, a deliberate intention to avoid even the bare possibility of recollection, for the very good reason that it would be painful or disagreeable” (Analytical Psychology and Education,” CW 17, par. 199a).
But Jung goes further, saying, “The general rule is that the more negative the conscious attitude is, and the more it resists, devalues, and is afraid, the more repulsive, aggressive, and frightening is the face which the dissociated content assumes. (“The Philosophical Tree,” CW 13, par. 464).
Facing Your Fears
Ultimately both Freud and Jung are pointing out the need for people to face and resolve unconscious fears and traumas, to be “sensitive” to the pain of our inner child. In doing so, by facing our demons, we can emerge stronger, more consciously aware and unfettered by the painful barbs of our past. So, take a moment to take psychic stock of yourself. What peas press into your consciousness and disturb your sleep and peace of mind? What issues, past or present, even ones small as a pea, do you need to deal with? In doing so, you may unlock the inner truth that sets you free.
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