I became a priest on a hot summer’s day at Lichfield Cathedral. I was as prepared as I thought I could be for the vows I was about to take. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the whole paraphernalia of ecclesiastical haberdashery. It seemed so unimportant. Friends had been trying on cassocks and dog collars for weeks before. I hadn’t given it a second thought.
How naive I was. Putting on a clerical collar changes how people treat you. It is such a powerful symbol, so freighted with meaning, that you instantly become an object of projection. Put on a little circle of plastic around your neck, and the person gets obliterated by the parson. I felt I had disappeared. In time, I came to hate wearing it. I still do.
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So, despite the many and various ways in which I have been outraged by Harry’s attack upon his own family, the one batsqueak of sympathy I have for him is my understanding of what it feels like to be hidden behind one’s role. Not just hidden, but almost obliterated by it. In Spare, he explains that one of the things that attracted him to former girlfriend, Chelsy Davy, was that she had not been struck down by “throne syndrome”. Unlike so many others, she didn’t see a prince, she saw Harry.
In the months after I started wearing all the churchy kit, I noticed some strange and rather foolish changes to my behaviour. For one thing, I started swearing more. Nothing too wildly offensive — at least not with parishioners — but enough to attempt to disturb the grip that this little magic ring of plastic had on other people’s imaginations. I also over-shared. It sounds childish to state it so bluntly — and it was pretty childish — but I wanted people to see me. I felt the need to re-assert the identity that I felt had been surrendered to the office.
Though the priesthood carries with it a whole world of expectation, my experience of projection is nowhere near that experienced by members of the Royal Family. Nonetheless, it does give me a small insight into the temptation that Harry has unfortunately given in to: the temptation to draw back the curtain and tell the world who you really are. “See me!” this poor troubled man is screaming, “See my pain!”. In Harry’s case this act of defiant self-disclosure has been turbocharged by the whole Californian culture of authenticity. Of being true to yourself. This couldn’t be more different from the “never explain, never complain” iron curtain philosophy of his family.
To those who admire the “be true to yourself” mantra, Harry is a hero of self-expression; to those who don’t, he is a self-absorbed cry baby. Mostly, I don’t.
The philosopher Charles Taylor has written with great insight about how this difference chimes with a centuries-long shift in European culture about where meaning is to be found. It used to be the case that meaning was found beyond oneself. As the psalmist put it: “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help.” Meaning is to be discovered out there, in God’s order, in nature. Our purpose is to follow the star, or something beyond oneself. God doesn’t really mean some big quasi-person from whom you receive instructions; it means something more like an understanding of things — universe, human existence — as seen from the widest possible angle. But secularisation has shifted this emphasis: meaning is no longer out there, but in here. You follow your own star. Your star, your truth.
The tragedy of Harry is how badly he has been let down by this expressivist philosophy. Because the problem with “see me” is that not everyone will see the same thing. And not everyone will like what they see.
In that fascinating movie The Two Popes, there is the following little exchange:
Pope Benedict: This popularity of yours, is there a trick to it?
Pope Francis: I just try to be myself.
Pope Benedict: Huh. Whenever I try to be myself, people don’t seem to like me very much.
I doubt Pope Francis would ever say anything so crass as “I just try to be myself”. But in so far as this is a fictional conversation between personifications of modernity and pre-modernity, it captures the difference rather well. My sympathies are with the fictional Benedict because, like him, I often don’t feel particularly likeable — which doesn’t matter so much if meaning and affirmation is to be found outside the self. But Harry’s overwhelming desire to express all the details of his inner life puts him straight into the jaws of the tabloid press, who can make anyone look unlikable. “See me” is a dangerous thing to utter when the audience is Rupert Murdoch.
Benedict, by contrast, knows that his God is a very different kind of judge. And his rueful shrug at not being as popular as Francis contains a kind of freedom from fear that “I just try to be myself” has not yet discovered. There is enormous liberation — and not only in the priestly vocation — to be found when you realise “it’s not all about me!”. The psychological hell of Harry Windsor is that he has made it all about him. And the poison of this position is leaking everywhere.
None of which is to disparage the workings of the inner life. As it happens, I had the same psychotherapist as Harry’s mother, and she pretty much saved me from emotional disaster. At its best, therapy is not about “my truth” but about reality and how one learns to live with that reality when it doesn’t necessarily have your ego’s best interests at heart.
Harry may think that telling his truth is all part of his healing process. But many of us will only remember an entitled brat dissing his father and his brother, and telling us too much about his frostbitten penis. No healing will come from this.
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