The Red Shoes

“Dear me, what pretty dancing-shoes!” said the soldier. “Sit fast, when you dance,”

Hans Christian Andersen

It has been some time since the last fairytale post. These are extraordinary times and spending weekends not entering my home office, or turning on a computer screen has been important. With virtual, remote ways of working, many of us are spending more time in front of monitors than we would in our “normal” working environment. We long for this downtime, however today I’m breaking my weekend COVID norm to share this post. It’s timely and has a message that many of us need to remember.

Have you ever obsessed over something so much that your mind can’t think of anything else? Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Red Shoes” is the story of a young girl, Karen, obsessed with a pair of red shoes. At the heart of his story is how obsession can take over and soon we’ve lost control.

Unlike so many other fairytales, this spell isn’t cast by a witch, rather it’s a seemingly heroic soldier who appears in the fairytale, many times after the red shoes have been worn. It’s Karen’s obsession for the red shoes, and wearing them despite being told not to, that leads to the soldier casting the spell.

The spell makes her feet dance when she puts on the red shoes, leading to losing control of her feet. It starts slowly with Karen able to remove the shoes; however her feet and shoes start becoming one the more she obsesses about and wears them. Soon, she is unable to take them off or let her legs rest from dancing. A perfect illustration of how an innocent obsession can soon take over all our being, mentally and physically.

Tired from the lack of respite, Karen heads to the executioner for help. Needing to regain control, she requests he cut off her feet. A drastic measure, and one that does not fully rid her of the red shoes. Despite being chopped off from the rest of her body, the shoes with her feet still in them, continue to dance and block Karen from returning to her normal social outings.

What does the story of the red shoes teach us, particularly right now?

Very simply with so many uncertainties in the world right at this moment, we need to consciously acknowledge the obsessions we have and take control of them before they control us. The obsession may be something that’s not tangible to us; something we can’t physically have yet we worry that we could.

I have heard from many people their obsession over exposing their families to the pandemic situation, and despite their rational thinking, the irrational anxious thinking is taking control, and an emotional toll. There are many good resources such as this one on mindfulness from Beyond Blue that can offer support. Many organisations also offer their own employee assistance program, and staff must never be scared or ashamed of reaching out for support.

On the flip side, many people are obsessing over their need to resume social interaction and the normality of life. It can be this obsession and need to be out in public that starts to override our rational thinking about personal and societal safety. Before we know it, we as a society will lose the control we’ve worked hard to gain. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Always remember we as a society need to fulfil the safety needs before we can fulfil the social ones.

The main lesson for us all right now is to use this time to understand ourselves. Understand and acknowledge the obsessions we have. Then find the necessary means to relieve ourselves of these obsessions before they take control and we too need to chop off our feet.

“Now, I have suffered enough for the red shoes,” she said

Hans Christian Andersen

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