Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain!

My Dear Reader,

(Yes, I'm still working on my resolution to read ten classics in 2013.)

One of the great things about reading a children's book as an adult is the way a tale that merely entertained you years ago can suddenly become incredibly meaningful. Once you have been taught to look at stories critically, you start to see things that you never would have found before. Such was the case when I re-read The Wizard of Oz.

As familiar as I am with this story, I realized that this book is all about perception. It seems so obvious that I don’t know how I could have missed it! We all know that the Wizard of Oz is a fraud, but here are some things that are either missing from the movie or were emphasized and expanded in the book:

  • The Scarecrow, who claims to be brainless, is the one who finds solutions for the majority of the problems faced on the Yellow Brick Road and beyond.

  • The Tin Woodman (AKA the Tin Man), who claims to be heartless, is the most considerate and sensitive of the group, even to the point where he weeps openly and rusts.

  • The Cowardly Lion, who does feel socially awkward and anxious, is brave and fearless when his friends need his help.*

  • Dorothy, who feels so homesick, is the most centered and at peace with herself. Though she feels powerless, she is actually one of the most powerful people in Oz.

And, most importantly:
  • Each one of these characters labeled themselves with these negative traits, usually with little prompting by others.
As a person with Clinical Depression™, this idea of self-labeling is a familiar one. My chemically-imbalanced brain produces negative thoughts, and sometimes these thoughts overflow into words that just kind of gush out. I often say that I can’t do this or I’m bad at that. I’m a terrible something-or-another-er. And really, when I say these things, I never think there is any harm. At the time, my words only seem like the unavoidable truth, and they’re so mild and harmless compared to the loud claxon in my brain that shrieks “You’re worthless, you’re a failure, and you ruin everything.” In the moment, I really feel like I’m being kind to myself in comparison. It’s not until later, when I am in a better state of mind, that I realize how unfairly I’ve painted myself. Really, I (like most people) am too complex to fit in one category or another. I try to put myself in a box, but I don’t really fit. There is a difference between having depression and being Depression Girl or Chronic Failure or whatever it is I feel like calling myself at the time. No label I could put on myself would be truly accurate.

But here’s the thing about The Wizard of Oz: nobody thinks twice about the labels that these characters give themselves, even after the labels are proved false. This is brought to a ridiculous and poignant extreme when the wizard admits point blank that he is a fraud (or a humbug, as he tells it), and yet the other characters still believe that he can magically solve their problems. It goes something like this:

Wizard: I’m a great wizard!

Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion: Awesome! You can solve ALL OF OUR PROBLEMS.

Wizard: Well, actually, I’m a big phony. All I’m really good at is special effects and showmanship. Besides, you guys all seem fine to me. Except Dorothy over there. Sorry, Dorothy.

Dorothy: I am greatly disappointed.

Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion: Hey, we still have all of these problems! Solve them, please.

Wizard: But I can’t.

Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion: But you’re the wizard.

Wizard: But I’m not a wizard.

Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion: Yes, you are. You told us so yourself.

Wizard: But then I explained to you that it was all a lie. In great detail.

Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion: But we still have these problems AND YOU’RE A WIZARD.

Wizard: No, I’m not!

Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion: Yes, you are!

Wizard: No I’m not!

Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion: Yes, you are!

Wizard: I never got my Hogwarts letter!

Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion: Solve our problems!

Wizard: But I . . .

Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion: Wiz-ard! Wiz-ard! Wiz-ard!

Wizard: Okay, fine. Using my skills of special effects and showmanship, I will pretend to solve your problems just so you will leave me alone:

Wizard: [Uses skills of special effects and showmanship. Pretends to solve everybody’s problems.]

Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion: It’s a miracle! We’re saved!

Wizard: You’re the same, except for the addition of mostly worthless props.

Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion: You’re the best wizard in all the land!

Wizard: Sigh.

The point here is something I have learned again and again in life: when you tell someone something about yourself, they generally believe it without question. Especially if you tell them something negative. And if you happen to misrepresent yourself, or if you change, you will have a heck of a time trying to get people to see and treat you differently. People’s perceptions have this annoying habit of sticking into people’s brains forever.

In my experience, some people won’t even change their mind after a decade and a mountain of proof. A decade.

I was teenager, people.


So when it comes to presenting yourself to others, it’s important to use good marketing. And when it comes to others, it’s important to remember to base your judgments on actual observations, not just what people tell you. Not even what people tell you about themselves.

Because we are all pretty hard on ourselves. And we all have this tendency to think that our problems and failures are worse than everybody else’s. But none of us fail all the time. None of us fit in a box.

And, like Dorothy, none of us know the extent of our true power and influence.

See? Look at that. All that truth from a children’s book. Who’da thunk?

Regards, best wishes, and self-compassion,

-Cecily Jane

*Unlike the movie, the “Cowardly” Lion does not run away when they fight the Wicked Witch. Instead, when she captures him and tries to turn him into a pack animal, he bravely refuses. He also jumps over large chasms and stuff. Really, of all the characters, the movie does him the greatest injustice.


just a little bit mo said...

Love love love. Spot-on. I'm also glad to hear that the cowardly lion was actually quite courageous in the book. I must have underestimated the "Wizard of Oz" books (haven't read a one), but it sounds like I'm missing out on a nugget.

Cecily Jane said...

It's a great book, Mo. The movie was a pretty good adaptation, but they changed quite a bit and left out a great deal. Just like every adaptation.