Some of you may recognise that as the final line of the Ugly Duckling song, based on the story by Hans Christian Anderson. I have been thinking about this story recently, for one reason and another. Whilst it resonates with me to an extent (which is no surprise as a misfit child who seems to gradually be finding her place in life), I am aware that the necessary simplicity of fairy tales leaves a little to be desired if you choose to use them as more complex allegory. Let me explain.
We join the ugly duckling at the point where it is evident to all the ducks that this is quite obviously a swan, and always has been. Swans are also able to see this, and treat the ‘duckling’ accordingly. This confuses him. He has been told, in all of his formative years, that he is ugly (and probably weird/stupid etc as well!). Now, however, some of the most elegant and respected birds on the pond are welcoming him as one of their own. Whilst he enjoys this, on one level, he is always secretly afraid of being ‘found out’. He has grown up amongst ducks, remember, and thus has some very duck-like behaviour which swans do not possess. Add this to the constant negativity he experienced growing up, it would be very surprising if the ugly duckling were simply to cry ‘Not I!’ and glide off into the sunset.
I would expect him to still feel nervous at the sound of malicious quacking, and a sense of inferiority whilst around self-assured swans. All this would, of course, be baffling to the onlooker. Why would a swan not be proud and confident, why would a harsh look from a duck send him into such a downward spiral? He is a fabulous looking swan, after all. Can he not just ‘get over himself?’
The problem here would be in the thinking of the swan himself. Although the reflection in the water and the words of those around him tell he that he is most certainly a swan, it will be difficult for him to believe this to be true. He will have spent all of his energies until this point trying, and failing, to be accepted by ducks (his ‘family and friends’ of childhood). His whole way of thinking and of behaving will be based on the idea that he is, in fact, an unsuccessful duck. This thinking will be very difficult to break, and certainly will not happen simply by others telling him it is not true. To him, it is more true than their ‘misguided’ opinions.
Only when swan decides to accept that he is, in truth, a swan and act accordingly will he truly reach the gliding off into the sunset stage. Declaring ‘Not I!’ to the question ‘Who’s an ugly duckling?’ will not come easy to him at first. In fact, he will feel more inclined to say ‘Me, I am. Sorry about that.’ and hang his head. Alternatively, a more angry swan may go for the questioner with beak and wings, causing others to wonder about such an extreme reaction to such a patently stupid question!
Either way, the only real solution to Ugly Duckling Syndrome in swans is for them to say ‘Thanks’ when treated like a swan and ‘No thanks’ when treated any other way.