by Judge Dennis Challeen
Most of us remember Hans Christian Andersen’s short fairy tale entitled the “Emperor’s New Clothes.” It’s about a vain emperor who cares only about wearing beautiful expensive apparel, that consumes his total attention. He hires two unscrupulous weavers who promise to make him the finest suit of clothes from a fabric that is invisible to anyone who is “unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent.”
The Emperor, convinced of the truth of these assertions, orders the new suit. His Ministers pretend they see the clothes, because they fear if they didn’t they will be fired for being incompetent and stupid. All the Emperor’s subjects were informed by decree that the Emperor had a new invisible suit. The Emperor parades in public, and the townsfolk, not wanting to be stupid, go along with the Emperor’s decree. A small child in the crowd who doesn’t understand these adults’ pretenses, blurts out, “The Emperor has no clothes!” To this day, the saying applies to people who think they are more important than they are, and that children often see the honest truth.
Then there is the story about Grandma, who belongs to a bridge group that rotates being hostess. Grandma always serves delicious baked goods and of course gets complimented on what a wonderful baker she is, and she thanks everyone for the kind compliments. However, in the next room her 12-year-old granddaughter hears the conversations and says, “Grandmother, you bought those down at Mary’s Bakery on George Street.” There is utter silence and embarrassment. The other ladies know this is true but never said anything because they don’t want to embarrass their hostess. The granddaughter who is telling the truth gets disciplined, and learns that part of the adult world is “Don’t always tell the truth — be silent if it might hurt someone’s feelings.”
You know you’re growing old when you remember the popular TV program Art Linkletter’s “Kids say the Darndest Things” (1952-1970). The program was broadcast live before delayed broadcast had been invented. The program was popular because kids are uninhibited and honest; they say it like it is from their view of the world, not yet understanding polite adult conversations. Children were interviewed and often blurted out private family matters that “shouldn’t be repeated” to the rest of the world.
Sometimes innocent children can be brutally honest — such as a four-year-old child who didn’t want to kiss her grandmother because her “breath is stinky.”
As we grow older we find that to tell the truth is not always accepted. I learned this at an early age. My mother was an organist in a small country church and was responsible for the music at the Sunday morning services. My mother had graduated from a piano and organ school in the Chicago suburb of Aurora, Ill., so she knew talent when she heard it.
There was a woman in the church who thought she was a very talented soloist and constantly called upon my mother to allow her to sing at the services. The problem was, this woman was a dreadful singer. Her voice was irritating, off key, and she didn’t keep in time with the piano or organ accompanist. My poor mother tried to help her but she was the kind who didn’t take suggestions well. My mother was receiving complaints from members of the congregation, but she didn’t want to hurt the woman’s feelings, so she suggested simple songs, all to no avail. The pastor was asked to intervene; he was too old and kind to do so. Finally, a church member told the woman that if she was going to continue to sing publicly she’d better take some lessons. This was the truth, but it was taken as an insult. Worse yet, there were some who complimented the women for her beautiful voice. They were either lying, had no ear for music, or were just trying to be nice. The problem solved itself when the woman, in a huff, quit the church, took her vocal chords with her, and joined another congregation.
Being a child at the time, I was confused by this whole adult world. I couldn’t figure out why these adults, including my mother, were avoiding telling the truth. In retrospect, it was clear that most adults (there are a few exceptions) try to avoid confrontations or causing bad feelings. The truth sometimes hurts.
At that time I never dreamed my life would be spent in courtrooms trying to determine who is telling the truth, and fully knowing my decisions will anger those I rule against. Judges always know that a favorable ruling will result in the conclusion that the judge is brilliant and fair, but when the ruling is contra, the judge is deemed biased, unfair, and ignorant.
A few times through the years I was overruled by the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court — they didn’t care in the least about my feelings, as it should be.