Parable of the Tailor's Shield

Not so long ago in a land not so far away, there was a village wherein resided no professional tailors.  Instead, each family was responsible for making its own clothing and it was forbidden for any person to create clothing for anyone other than direct relation.  Each family was required to use cloth with a pattern unique to them so as to make themselves easily recognizable to other families.  Were a person to show himself in public with a pattern in his clothing that did not match that of his family he would immediately be exposed as a fraud and a thief.

Now in this village lived a woman named Claire who was greater at crafts than any other villager.  In particular, her clothing was of a quality that far surpassed all others.  So amazing were her skills, in fact, that her neighbors insisted on taking instruction from her.  And taught them she did with an enormous sense of pride.

As time went on, Claire found that her classes prevented her from fashioning clothing for herself.  But she couldn’t imagine cutting back on instruction since her work as a teacher added much to her status in the village.  As she pondered her dilemma in the spacious classroom the elders had built for her she realized that many of her students’ nearly completed projects were lying about everywhere unguarded.

But this was only the first of many realizations.  For she also quickly realized that, aside from prestige, she wasn’t being paid for her work as an instructor.  She further realized that people of high status often had their stations constantly affirmed by the payment of tribute from those of lower status.  And finally she realized that taking a thing couldn’t be considered stealing if it was actually owed to you.

Claire was certain that taking from her students was the perfect solution to her problem, all but for one catch:  she couldn’t wear the stolen clothing without giving herself away.

Fortunately for Claire, she had many other skills at her disposal.  Compared to tailoring she was only slightly less adept in making weapons.  She decided she would succeed in procuring her rightful tribute of clothing by making herself a shield.

The shield Claire created was magnificent.  It was round and large enough to obscure her entire body, other than her head, from view.  It was fashioned out of folded steel in a manner that rendered it well-nigh indestructible.  Adorned with spectacular designs, there was no shield ever made that was its equal.  All who beheld it would be so enamored that they would never notice that the clothing Claire wore behind it was not her own.  It was truly a masterpiece, so Claire gave it a name.  She called it “Ego”.

With the shield in hand, Claire stole clothing from her students and was never suspected, for, after all, why would the greatest seamstress in the village covet clothing so inferior to her own?

Time went by and unsolved clothing thefts grew in number.  Claire’s shield grew heavy and resentment grew in her heart.  Resentment toward “real” thieves and frauds whose crimes made it difficult for the villagers to forget about the missing clothes.  Resentment toward the elders for never properly paying her for her services.  Resentment toward her students for never deciding on their own to honor her with gifts.

Eventually Claire found herself spending much time before the local judge.  Not in defense of herself, of course, because there were still none who suspected her as a thief.  (And, in her mind, she wasn’t one, after all.)  Rather, she was frequently before the judge to accuse others of wrong-doing in the hopes of distracting her neighbors from the clothes that went missing.  Soon she was the most successful prosecutor of theft for miles around.  (Which cut even more into her time for making clothes… but this worked out since, in her thinking, she was also “earning” more “tribute”.)

In spite of the troubles, though, Claire was quite pleased with how her magnificent shield was working and felt secure in the fact that it would function as her flawless and unchanging protector for the rest of her days.

Then one day a new pupil showed up in Claire’s class, a woman she’d never met before.  Her name was Sophia, and she was the most sincere and serene woman Claire had ever met.  Claire was fascinated with Sophia and resolved to befriend her, for she finally felt as though she’d met another exceptional person like herself.

So after a few weeks of classes Claire approached Sophia and said, “Sophia, I have to confess that of all of my students you are my favorite.  Please come to my house for supper and let us enjoy one another’s company.”

But Sophia said, “I’m sorry.  I do not know you.”

Claire was puzzled.  “Of course you know me… I’m your tailoring instructor!”

“I know that,” Sophia said.  “But I don’t know you at all.  I can’t even see you behind that shield.”

“Ah,” Claire said, “well, you must understand that this shield IS me.”

“It is?” Sophia asked with a note of surprise.

“Of course!” Claire replied.  “I’m likewise strong, exquisite, pure, and perfected.  I am, in these ways, just like you!  This is why we should become friends.”

“Ah,” Sophia said, “well, I’m not any of those things.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, sometimes I’m weak and defective,” Sophia said.  “I still have many things in life to learn and I make many mistakes.  Many are the sins I’ve committed and some sinful tendencies still haunt me.”

Claire’s eyes widened in shock.  “But how can this be? You seem to me to be very honest and at peace! Why aren’t you more bitter and racked with guilt?”

“That’s a very good question,” Sophia said.  “When I do something I shouldn’t have done, the first thing I do is acknowledge that I committed the transgression out of pure selfishness and an utter disregard for anyone or anything else.  The entire cosmos would be better off had I not done the thing.”

“Hold on right there,” Claire interrupted.  “Don’t you think you’re too hard on yourself? I mean, perhaps you had a good reason for committing the sin.  And anyway, you learned valuable lessons from committing it.  Everyone makes mistakes!”

“There are some lessons that need not be learned the hard way,” Sophia said.  “And I know the difference between a wrong act I commit in ignorance and one I commit deliberately.  I don’t deny that the cosmos has a way of bringing great good out of a great wrong, but the good graces of the cosmos ought not be carelessly invoked by irresponsible acts.”

“Fair enough,” Claire said.  “So then how can you appear so content?”

Sophia explained, “When I acknowledge unconditionally my ability to do evil, I at the same time acknowledge unconditionally my ability to do good.  Therefore, I have the power to repent of my wicked deed, properly mourn the consequences, repair the damage done where I can, and continue with my life never committing precisely the same transgression again.  This is the process of forgiving oneself.”

For a reason Claire didn’t presently understand, her shield was feeling heavier than ever.

“If it weren’t for forgiveness,” Sophia said, “I’d ever be burdened by the weight of my past and I’d never be able to change and grow into a better person.  I would be as you said, bitter and full of resentment.  But I decided a long time ago that life is much too short for nursing feelings like those.”

All at once Claire was no longer proud of her shield.  In truth, she felt profound shame and wanted desperately to drop it but she knew if she did she’d appear to Sophia as a thief and a fraud and she was neither of those things.

Except, actually, she was BOTH of those things.

As Claire continued to imagine the world through Sophia’s eyes, she could no longer hold onto the delusion that she was innocent.  Eventually she cast “Ego” aside and stood before Sophia in clothing that bore the pattern of Sophia’s family.  Claire was no longer shielded against her shame.

“Don’t despair,” Sophia said gently.  “I forgive you, Claire.  And now that I can actually see you, I agree that we can be dear friends.”

Claire’s humiliation melted away and an uncommon courage welled within her heart.  She knew that forgiving herself would take her down a path of confession and vulnerability in her village, but she wasn’t afraid.

“Thank you,” she said through tears.

“Thank you,” Sophia replied.

For her crimes Claire was required to pay restitution, but eventually the village forgave her in the same manner that Sophia had.  And, indeed, Claire and Sophia became life-long friends.

Before the Shield

I think what I find most interesting about the parable is actually what happens before Claire makes the shield and I like to hear what other people thought about that. The first thing that stands out to me is the whole rule about family coats of arms which defines what Claire does as being a fraud and a thief. Without the rule, Claire wouldn't be committing a sin and wouldn't need the shield.

The second thing that stands out is that Claire's talent is making fine clothes, and the most obvious way she could display that talent is just by wearing her own clothes. I guess the step from the clothes themselves being a sign of the way Claire is better than others to the pride she takes in being an instructor is somewhat unclear. Well, the part that's clear is that the measure of how valuable Claire is goes from something exterior to something interior, and eventually to something that she ironically has to hide--it gets replaced by the shield. The part that's unclear is the motive and whether that should weigh on our judgment of what Claire does. Why does she start instructing people if pride and high status could be equally well served just by making and wearing the clothes? 'Cause it seems like that would have actually been the more selfish thing to do no matter how much her neighbors insisted.

The Clothing Law

I wanted to branch off a bit to discuss the set-up of the law at the beginning. Is it a sin or is it evil to break a law if the law itself is wrong, as I think this family clothing law is? I've broken trespassing laws in acts of civil disobedience; is it that Claire isn't setting out to change the law by her actions--that is her motive--that defines how guilty she is? I would say that theft/fraud and trespass are all examples of breaking the law; I'm just not sure how to assign terms like sin or evil. Now that I think about it I have another example which is in some ways closer to the parable--though it wasn't a law, but a rule so I'm not sure if that makes a difference in talking about what it means to disobey.  In my junior high school, girls weren't allowed to wear pants, only dresses or skirts. So I spread the word around that we should all try to wear pants to school one day with the idea that they wouldn't send us all home--which in fact worked. Again, the difference with Claire seems to be intent.

In retrospect, that first question I asked below--I think what I was aiming for there was finding out whether the law about family patterns remained in effect by the end of the story.


The story provides no motive for the law. Because your morality tells you the law is wrong, you are assuming the motive for this law is wrong. You have held the lawmaker[s] in court and found him[them] guilty without allowing them to state their case. In essence, you're accusing them of stacking the deck in favor of sin without sufficient information to make such a claim. This is a common violation of the anthropic principle, in which because you personally cannot fathom a positive reason for this law, you assume one cannot exist.

I can say all that in such a fashion because I did it all too.

In your example of what you did at your school, first I want to say that I'm always in support of civil disobedience against an unfair rule. However, disobedience is disobedience. Justice withheld is not justice at all, but a mockery of it. My school would have taken the hint and reviewed the rule, but would also have sent every single girl home or found another way to punish them all. Our school, perhaps unlike yours, had methods for students and parents to address rules they disagreed with.

The Anthropic Principle

That is an excellent point ESi. And also in your use of the court metaphor to point to my judgment of the law you delineate another problem--that is if I (a single person) decide a law is wrong and therefore attempt to overturn it, am I acting as if I'm THE arbiter of right/wrong which actually is kind of what Claire did too. (oops, tripped over my own ego, methinks :-) So now what I'm still curious about is not only the reasons behind the law, but also how the law came to be (because that figures into my assessment of how good/bad it is). But maybe that's twisting the parable into something that it's not really designed to address.


Well, I obviously can't speak for the GC, but I can say that in the way the parable is set up, it does mirror a few aspects of the Garden of Eden story, namely in the 'why was it set up that way?' department. Your response is the same as many to that setup; it is so common, in fact, that it got itself a name: 'the argument from outrage'. The Bible is completely silent on 'why' God chose to make things the way He did. Many (I did it too) look at all of it from our own standpoint and moral values and cry 'foul!' It is only upon deeper inspection that we realize that we just can't attack or defend the motive because we aren't given the faintest clue as to what it might be. In the case of the Bible, I choose to believe that because God repeatedly shows He is merciful and loving, that the motive is similarly pure. In the same way, the story says that after Claire comes clean, the village exacts its proscribed punishments, then forgives her. I choose to believe that a civilization willing to do that would not have made such a law capriciously.


Ah, I see. Yes, I started to wonder about that--not specifically the Garden of Eden connection but whether as a parable it's meant to represent the way God had chosen things to be. I'm not sure on your second point--because the fact that the village/civiliation acts in a forgiving way in the end doesn't mean that they couldn't have made a mistake in establishing the law in the first place. I'm not saying that they did--I'm just saying it doesn't decide it one way or the other for me.

On a side note (I tried to add this point in earlier but you were posting your reply so my edit function died)--I think the choice of clothing as the central device is brilliant. And I love the way it keeps showing up in our language, as in your earlier comment's use of the word "fashion" or my use of the term "address"--which prompted me to look the word origin up--both address and dress are from the same root French word which means "to make straight" with the added implication "to make right"--that's so cool.


Understand that my second point is something I choose to believe, not something I could perfectly defend. I make that choice in light of the evidence that these are apparently a good, loving people, and in that upon review of Claire's case (and all the other thieves she helped bring to justice), the society did not choose to modify the law, or, apparently, do so much as question it. When you rebelled, the school's leadership looked at the rule and apparently agreed with you that it made no sense. I think that is a rational response that, when called upon to enforce a law, society also inspects the law for validity.

Your flair for language outstrips my own, I'm afraid. Again you have made wonderful connections that I, personally, would probably not have made given all the time in the world. I was once told that I had a knack for language, but you are more than my equal.

Did the Law Remain Unchanged?

That was still a question to me--the fact that Claire is wearing Sophia's family coat of arms at the end--were they family from the beginning?  Did the law change?  Or did Claire have to change back to wearing her family's pattern? 

And thanks.  Smile  I very much appreciate your perceptiveness, especially as it helps me see the assumptions in my own arguments.

Hm, I don't think so...

I didn't get the impression that the law had changed. The end just revealed that she had stolen Sophia's family's pattern and was wearing it when she revealed herself to her, which is interesting given that the parable portrays Claire's kindred feelings with Sophia.

Heh, the discussion here... I think it's interesting that the notion of arbitrary rules or law is questioned. The saying "Rules are meant to be broken" implies that no rules are perfect. And such uniform (add to your list of "clothing device") rules are not impermissible, for all rules fall harder on certain groups than on others. You have to make everyone the same for any system with limits to work. And to that end, we might ask why Claire's community chose to adopt such an arbitrary law. Or maybe it's a belief or dogma.

I don't think the story intends to teach about the vadility of rules or laws but if we want to get down to the nitty gritty let's get down to it. The law as it is in this story - it is considered a crime to expose yourself wearing patterns that are not of your family. Perhaps it's absurd. In fact, perhaps it even creates more crime just being in effect. However, it doesn't seem to be in place to prevent anything from happening except distinguishing one family to another.

Which is interesting if twisted a bit. The thing about "no baseball hats" is that it is readily understandable and easily enforceable. Thus, one can see why a restaraunt might frame its dress code as a series of specific prohibitions, rather than adopting a vague standard like "dress nicely". Beyond the given considerations of enforcing that rule is the fact that "dress nicely" is not exactly what is insinuated. It can be a surrogate for the true standard "behave nicely". Even arbitrary laws have some reason connected with the order of that society to which they belong but it's worth asking why the rules don't approach it's true meaning more directly. And if not resolved, jazzie can start rallying.

So of course this goes back to our main concern that wearing a different family's patterns is not the whole story. Smile

Banter aside, I came here to tell you that I'm impressed with what you two pulled out of this. Smile

Hm, I don't think so...

I actually did think the law (or maybe what the law is actually representing here) had changed by the end of the story. My reading of the parable at first was really thinking of it as a kind of social history analogy beginning with tribalism and then ending with a kin relationship that transcends tribalism. And in that reading, I think you're right that the whole discussion about rules is off base as to thinking about what the story is about. Maybe my second question above which was about the way Claire's pride could have been based on external show rather than internal skill is a better line of pursuit.

But in that social history interpretation I see Claire's theft and her making of the shield as mixed rather than being evil, because without it--without the development of ego--you wouldn't get to that final stage, which again I didn't see as a return to the beginning state of the rule but a progression to something better.

And then I got kind of sidetracked into my individual rights schtick. Smile



I love you guys.  Smile

The clothing rule in the story was meant to highlight the tendancy of societies to connect surface appearances with ultimate identity.  The story doesn't really define "direct relation" but I think I had in mind "mother-father-children" as being "direct".  I suppose this implies that when one person "pairs up" with another they are assigned a "joint pattern" that will also be used for all of their children until each of THEM pair up with someone else... but, honestly, I hadn't thought about it that far.  The rule was a quick-and-dirty vehicle for a relatively simple metaphor, as far as I was concerned.  And the rule didn't change in the end.  Claire's reveal was intended to be ironic, but also symbolic of Sophia's immediate acceptance of Claire.  In the end the SOCIAL significance of the clothing contrasted with the INDIVIDUAL significance of the shield.  Or... that's what was intended anyway.

I usually hesitate to explain what I meant in stories because I don't want to short-circuit the creative process of interpretation.  What people take away from my stories is MUCH more important to me that what I "meant" (if we can even nail such a thing down in the first place).  But... it's a parable.  And even Grandpappy often took the time to explain what certain elements in the story represented. Smile

Here's a bit of extra commentary, in case you're interestedSmile:

“Ego” was meant to counter the four existential fears:

Impermanence – the Ego is deemed indestructible.

Ignorance – the Ego is deemed infallible.

Isolation – the Ego is deemed irresistible.

Irrelevance – the Ego is deemed indispensible.

Thus, Ego is a reflexive defense mechanism against the most fundamental human anxieties.  As a mere reflex, though, it’s a poor substitute for reason.  When held onto too tightly, it becomes a lie and a weapon of hypocrisy; it prevents others from seeing that one is often guilty of the very crimes that one accuses others of committing.  It obscures one’s similarity with others in favor of a false exaltation.  It takes the balance that ought to exist between “self” and “other” and tips the scales in overwhelming and destructive favor of “self”.  It can only be brought “back in line” by a healthy dose of humility, often most effectively delivered by surprise… a respected friend or an admired character modeling humility at an unexpected moment… in effect holding a mirror up to the shield-bearer so that she or he can see the truth of things.  Ironically, this shield that many of us wield on the outside was created in response to a threat from within.  Forgiveness follows on the heels of humility.  Ego falls away with our fears.  Our social nature is laid bare and the deep ties that bind us can begin to facilitate true healing.

Very good!


Very good!

Ah!!!  I couldn't place my finger on the connection I was looking for and gosh... now I can't believe I didn't!!  Grr!

Egoism and false humility (which is something I realize again and again since reading this that much of the humility we come across in life is of the false variety) are the ego’s two different methods of defense against existential fear.

Claire: “well, you must understand that this shield IS me.”

My question to that... was Claire's self-perception that she and Sophia were alike - strong, exquisite, pure, and perfected meant to contrast the four existential fears? 

Impermanence – the Ego is deemed indestructible. (strong?)

Ignorance – the Ego is deemed infallible.  (exquisite?)

Isolation – the Ego is deemed irresistible.  (pure?)

Irrelevance – the Ego is deemed indispensible.  (perfected?)

Not sure if those are correctly placed...

Just wondering if that was meditated on or am I just pulling bunnies out of a hat?  Smile

What I liked about this is that it is a classic example of the correct way to deal with such inferiority.  When the ego capsule breaks, individual life communicates freely with universal life. A person who has overcome self-alienation and alienation from universal life becomes free from fear and sense of inferiority. And as such in the story, such people like Claire and Sophia have no need to pretend to be more than or less than what they really are. Neither egoistic nor humble; they just remain as they really are. Instead of egoism and humility they have one unique characteristic - great inner strength.

I like these. More please. Smile

Re: Very good!

You're very clever, Kat. Smile

I'd say, in my thinking, "perfected" goes with "infallible" and "exquisite" goes with "indispensible".

You bring up an extremely important point with your mention of false humility.  Self-deprecation is often seen as the "good" response to pride, but it can actually be an extreme version of the same self-centered behavior, actually reinforcing Ego with the "martyr" strategy.

Balance, as always, is key.


The only thing I'd really wanted to add was agreement with Kat for 'more, please'.

But remember that 70% of the world is composed of collectivist honor-shame societies. Humility is, in many ways, an expected response in many situations. Self-deprecation is more or less an unknown, but self-aggrandizing is well-known and is highly frowned upon (i.e., it generates shame). With cultural blending and influences, many here in the US know something of humility acts from these other cultures, even if they don't fully understand what's going on. Sometimes, a genuine attempt to emulate those acts results in a hollow display of humility.

Re: Interjection

Ah yes... good points, ESi... well said...

Martyr complex

"Self-deprecation is often seen as the 'good' response to pride, but it can actually be an extreme version of the same self-centered behavior, actually reinforcing Ego with the 'martyr' strategy."

Heh, yeah, it does... which reminds me...

To kind of add on to yours and ESi's point... passive/aggressive kind of behavior using the "martyr strategy", constantly trying to accomplish some martyr level with less-than-heroic depracations of ourselves causes the value of true marytrdom to lessen as well as the value of "true humility" as the ego obscures it.  ...which leads to a point that doesn't belong here but it sorely reminded me of how often I actually hear the word "martyr". And I think of how much it sucks that the word has been co-opted by terrorists to distinquish their most virulent genocidal acts of "death for the cause" as associating with martyrdom.

The I-Ching shield!


Heh... nice catch jaz, and great, great story GC...

In relation to the story I've liked this quote: "Listen to people's stories and they could all be entitled 'Why I Cannot Be At Peace Now'. The ego doesn't know that your only opportunity for being at peace is now. Or maybe it does know and is afraid you may find this out. Peace, after all, is the end of the ego."

Here's my perpetual thoughts. The shield named Ego, the references to the cosmos, good graces, some sagely advice, realization = enlightenment. Somewhat correspondingly all of this reminded me of the book, "I-Ching, The Oracle of the Cosmic Way". I have never read it but I wanted to so I was looking into it.

This is a quote in relation to the book, "The removal of the Ego as the defining agent of reality releases awareness to re-inhabit the natural world, rediscover the nature of humanity, and to be re-enchanted by the harmonies of the Cosmos."


Your first quote reminded me of this: "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened." - Winston Churchill


You really wrote this, GC?

It's just that it's so good... You're very talented!

New Year's Parable

Great parable in keeping with the season, GC. One question--the fact that Claire was wearing Sophia's family's pattern--was that meant just to indicate that Claire had stolen from Sophia, or also that by dropping the shield she had become, in a way, a member of Sophia's family?

Your use of the word "enamored"--the closeness in the words amor and armor are--that really helped point to the message of the ending.

Re: New Year's Parable

One question--the fact that Claire was wearing Sophia's family's pattern--was that meant just to indicate that Claire had stolen from Sophia, or also that by dropping the shield she had become, in a way, a member of Sophia's family? -- jaz

Yes.  Smile

Parabolic Answers

So this is one of those paradoxical type a koan...designed to nudge me out of logos into the ineffable? Yeah, that's working for me...slipping into silence...the kind that works sort of along the lines of a cloaking device....(jaz chuckles silently to herself)


I totally predicted that answer. Not that I can prove it, but I just knew that's what you were going to say.

And ditto to jaz's observation on your use of language. Gifted you are.