The Ugly Duckling is a fairy tale written by the famous Danish writer, Hans Christian Anderson, and revolves around a duckling in a pond it shared with other ducks – but it did not quite look like they did. In their eyes, it was ugly and awkward looking. The other ducks mocked, denigrated, disparaged and belittled it relentlessly. They made it feel worthless, inferior, and of no value.
Even the animals on the farm that contains the pond laughed at this ugly creature.
Its life was one of constant verbal, and even physical abuse. The duck was so overwhelmed by its hapless life that it leaves the pond and the farm and becomes a recluse. It avoids other animals and fowl, because for it, aloneness and isolation is better than being bullied. It is the lesser of two evils.
Yet his torment comes to an end when a winter passes and it leaves the cave it was in and glides on a pond, He looks at his reflection in the water – and realizes to its shock that it is a magnificent swan. It actually is beautiful and several swans in the water approach it, and for the first time in its miserable life, it not only is tolerated, but embraced and accepted.
But will this once derided and despised bird spend the rest of its life b’simcha?
Will its awareness that it is actually a lovely creature automatically raise its self-esteem and it will live with confidence and a sense of value?
Years of emotional and verbal abuse in his formative years and being told it was a “fahzayenish” – literally in Yiddish something not to be seen – doesn’t get cast off so easily. A lifetime of being told that it is inadequate and worthless is not instantly erased. The psychological damage is done.
It’s like being told you’re fat, and even after actually losing weight and looking slim and svelte for years, the person will likely see herself as a fat person masquerading as a thin one.
She will feel like a fraud. There is a term for this sense of belief that one isn’t as pretty, or smart or capable as people think they are – it’s called Imposter Syndrome.
People convinced they are not what they appear to be are uncomfortable with compliments, fearing they are being mocked. Or they minimize their achievements, not out of modesty, but because they truly believe they aren’t worthy of the praise.
Perhaps growing up, they were scolded by well-intentioned or clueless parents for getting a 95 on an exam, and why did they fail in getting a perfect grade? No validation of doing well, just made to feel like failures.
A friend had to explain to her critical parents why the “amazing” boy didn’t ask her out again. What did she say or do to turn him off? Didn’t matter that she wasn’t impressed with him, only that she failed to catch him.
People might be afraid to get married or take on a challenging profession because they still believe they are sub par and are incompetent or inadequate, and are terrified they will be “found out,” so they have commitment problems in their personal life and professionally.
I suspect that the swan might feel that way as well, and not feel comfortable in its “new skin.” It may join with the other swans, but won’t feel that it actually belongs with them and will be terrified that it really is ugly and the swans will “see through its facade” and chase it away.
The famous novelist, Mark Twain wrote a story a book called Pudd’nhead Wilson that takes place in the deep South before the Civil War. A light-skinned slave woman who was taking care of her master’s baby and her own white-looking baby, and fearing he could be sold one day, switched their clothing and accommodations, and their identities. The master’s son was raised as a slave, and her son was passed off as being the plantation owner’s son.
Years later, due to a legal matter, the truth came out, and the master’s son took his place in white society. But after being told he was a black slave, he was very uncomfortable being with “white folk.”
I imagine he, like the swan, would need years of therapy to shake off the message they received of being inferior and sub par.
So was it “happily ever after” for the swan? I don’t think so. Would it be kind because it had suffered and wanted to be different than its tormentors? Or would it repeat the cruel behavior because that was all it knew?
I’d like to think that the swan, having been on the receiving end of verbal and emotional abuse, would treat its peers like it wished to have been treated. That people who are different than you, no matter their background or their financials or their yichus or looks, are deserving of respect.
The sage Hillel believed that the entire Torah was all about treating others the way you would want to be treated. And on the flip side, not treating people in the manner you wouldn’t be treated.