Once upon a time (well, about 2 years ago) there was a beautiful princess who found a monster in a cave, gave it the kicking it so obviously deserved and went on her way to marry her prince and do the happily ever after thing. After she had gone, the monster (merely beaten, not dead) sat with its bruises and wondered how it had come to be cast in this role.
It wasn’t that she got angry – people do get angry after all, and while I find it hard to deal with, I wouldn’t blame anyone for being cross. It wasn’t the telling off – humiliating and hurtful though that was. What did for me, was seeing her on social media announcing how proud she was of herself for standing up to me. I had no idea what I must have looked like to her; for knocking me down to be something to take pride in. She knocked me down so thoroughly it took me months to get up, but then, that’s what warrior princesses do to monsters, isn’t it? Two years on, and I’ve had a lot of being haunted by what happened.
It’s one of the experiences that have made me very wary about the degree to which I let people in. It raised for me issues about how I am in the world, and what it is reasonable to express of my own discomfort. Because for me, what lay at the back of this was the need to flag up that she’d done something that really hurt my feelings, and for her this expression read as a full frontal attack. I try not to attack people, as a general thing. I’m conscious of issues like Ahimsa (psychological violence). I try not to raise my voice, not to blame or accuse, not to demand. No doubt I get this wrong sometimes, maybe even a lot, but the general effort on my part is towards not attacking people.
Of course she’s not the first princess to take offence because I’ve been inconsiderate enough to express pain. Maybe there’s something about princesses that makes it very difficult for them to hear that someone is unhappy. My most recent princess has a great deal invested in being seen as a lovely, kind, gentle, generous sort of person. It was therefore like a pea under a hundred mattresses to be told that she may have inadvertently caused distress. Princesses are delicate creatures, and the onus tends to be on the monster not to offend that delicacy with any misplaced peas. There are things to recognise here about the difference between goodness, and an appearance of goodness.
We tell stories about ourselves. We tell stories about other people. We cast them in roles, we give ourselves roles. Hero, princess, wicked witch, rescuer, victim, dragon. Girl in the high tower, growing her hair. Woodsman in the forest looking for grandmothers with wolf fetishes. Who we think we are shapes what we do, and what we expect from others. Who we think they are shapes how we react when they do something. Our stories aren’t always accurate, or helpful. When the terrible monster roars, the lovely princess has to dust off her Kung Fu moves and do the heroic thing. Meanwhile in another story, a person who has had their nerve broken before finds all the things they fear about themselves may be true after all, and hides in their cave for months.
It’s taken me a couple of years to come up with a new story, one involving peas and over-reactions, and the entitlement of princesses who wish to be seen as good, rather than an acceptance that kicking monsters is what princesses are for. Maybe monsters are people, too. Maybe some of them are howling, not growling, or are purring, or singing. Maybe being an awkward thing in a cave is not a reason to be attacked. New stories, better options.