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.