If it seems to good to be true, it probably is. This is what every parent wants their child to comprehend. This is what every fast and loose salesman does not want their customers to understand.
We have trusted our parents or primary care givers to teach us the truth, to guide us on this path evolutionary development assigns us of discovering what is real and what is not. Part of that teaching task includes a whole host of painful but necessary lessons about the limitations inherent in being a human being. One of these lessons includes teaching the youth of our species not to be too gullible. To do so the parents are willing to be the bad guys, to fool us badly. They become willing liars, easily fooling their young charges by assuring them that a dream they really want to believe in is really real. And then, as if this was not enough, they actually go out of their way to provide what looks like evidence that this impossible dream is real by using every deceptive form of misdirection they can muster. I am of course describing the most universally honored rituals that remain in our culture, those that compliment the birth of Christ – the rituals around Santa Clause.
This is one of those things that displays the wisdom of our experience being handed down the generations. (One of the many continuities between the generations taken for granted today that could be cut as the ecological blowback continues to tear at the very fabric of our societies). Right here where the story of the culture’s religion is born, the birth of the Christ, there is also placed the story of the culture’s secular god: the jolly fat man of consumerism’s material abundance. This elaborate setup is our cultural wisdom basically saying to the child, ‘only one of these is ultimately real, choose wisely.’ The Easter Bunny plays a similar role for the other major event in the Christian calendar which celebrates the resurrection. A wisdom not too hard to pierce is obvious when we consider the rabbit to be the symbol par-excellence of reproduction. Again, only one of these is ultimately real, choose wisely. You see there are relative truths and ultimate truths…
Here is where it really gets interesting. We moderns are used to thinking of our religious myths as stupid, naive and superstitious; all of which is a fairly sophisticated way of protecting their psychological usefulness. I worry a bit about shining too bright a light on that which functions best while left in partial shadow but have decided to trust the intuition that tells me now is the time to talk turkey. It is rather later than it might seem on the curve of Western civilization’s descent and for that reason I think it is a good time to take a look at what it was that had held things together and kept things working.
So do we choose to follow Jesus, or Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny? We will come back to that question.
The comfort a child draws from images is the same comfort an adult draws from reason. It is small comfort. The associational thinking that flows as one image leads to another does not include the stability we take for granted within our adult minds. There is no final ground yet in the child’s mind to which all flights of fancy will return. The task of waking up from those dreaming states of childhood is experienced as one of developing one’s own reasoning capacity. It involves the growth of enough self confidence to dare to trust one’s own thoughts and perceptions. It involves taking the first tentative steps towards trusting what you think, in spite of what others tell you, and trusting your own perceptions, in spite of whatever abstractions the mind might be hosting.
These are the first steps towards individuation. Using the conscious understanding to teach other parts of the mind the truth of things is arguably the most fundamental cognitive skill. We face our childhood fears by telling our minds that things in reality are not as bad as what our feverish imaginations are conjuring up. This is also how we will eventually learn to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open to one another, even though we know how much it hurts to learn we have been fooled and used instead of respected.
By their holiday actions with presents and eggs each parent teaches orthodoxy: that I am not Jesus.
They are not following the way that leads to a bloody crucifixion at the hands of the empire but actually the way of the bunny and the gift giver; reproducing and trying to bring warmth, songs, generosity and good-will to the home and hearth. No, they lack the certainty of a Christ, a faith that could literally move mountains (which would be of questionable sanity). They have the faith of uncertainty and have learned how to survive in the face of the unknown and unknowable. By their lives the adults around the child are illustrating the role of myth as myth.
In the great opposition of the psyche, ironically, this is the real faith; this willingness to accept things as they are for mortal social primates. This faith trusts, that in spite of all the suffering and sorrow, life is worth it. Our religious and sociological rituals are designed to hand on a basic faith in the reality of the cosmos as being a reality we can trust. Through our stories we reconcile ourselves to our human nature; that in the end we are but a wonderful fruit of the loins watched over, as it has been throughout deep time, by the dark god and goddess of the wild places. Whatever the intelligence is that animates the cosmos, it has chosen evolution through deep time as the means by which our persons manifest their true nature. Feet firmly on the ground it is precious to be a human being with heart and mind lifted towards the sky…
So do we choose to follow Jesus, or Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny?
This is the basic Christian story: Jesus was unique in showing the violence behind the scapegoat tendency of every community. He was son of god and son of man. Our role within this mythology is to accept we are sons and daughters of men by learning the difficult truth that this is how we are children of god. We try to become jolly, generous fathers and mothers, holding the faith through the solstice’s darkest night. We try to make peace with god by finding our immortality in the way of rabbits, aka trusting our love-lead reproductive “instincts.” In these the intelligence of the cosmos is most intimately revealed to each of us.
A child looks up to his or her mother and father as superheroes. Dad is the magician whose intelligent use of his body, speech and mind allows him to walk the earth with head held high as he pursues his work and will. The child does not yet comprehend the struggles and difficulties involved because it is so taken with the basics of effective functionality. Dad shows an integration of emotion and thought working together in a practical mastery of earthly things the child can only dream about one day doing themselves. Mother is the priestess who skillfully and eerily knows all about the mysteries of food and bowel movements, flesh and its affection and afflictions in tears and laughter, fears and comforts. She shows an integration of self-nurturing skills so accomplished she doesn’t need her own mother to take care of her! Surely she is in touch with the gods. This self contained individuality the parents display, each in their own way, is something the young child can only dream about one day becoming.
This perception of adult competency is not mistaken. The adults do manage to obtain their daily needs and deal with the larger world outside the home. For the child these seem to be miraculous powers.
Children are fools. Parents, by setting up their disillusionment, are trying to act with kindness to soften the blow. The child’s mind first absorbs language and images and in its evolutionary purposes works furiously to build an understanding of itself and its place in the world that will allow it to survive. Its primary care givers are a model that this seemingly impossible quest can in fact be accomplished, but how? It has been said the brain of a two year old might work harder absorbing information and laying down patterns than at any other time in the life of a human being. That is how.
The funny thing about the mind’s development in childhood is that while it has acquired language and it is exposed to the cultural environment of its adult society, it lacks the core function those adults are using. As post-Freudians we tend to think what is lacking in the child is a sexual integration of the emotions but equally vital is the cognitive integration which reasoning brings. The child’s mind is filled with images and stories which it thinks it is reading correctly but, in fact, they are not interpreting them as the adults around them do. It is obvious how this can become a real problem, particularly when the stories involved deal with what is or is not real, true and beautiful as our religiously mythological stories do. With puberty’s changes comes the complete reorganization of the body, emotions and mind. In the body there is a new center of sensation, in the emotions a new depth of both orgasmic pleasure and sexual-jealousy pain (the highs and lows of the adult psyche) and in the mind there is a new integrity of reason that shows up as a pre-verbal grasp of what is real and what is not.
Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth is a good meditation on this fundamental human reality between the magical world of the child and that of the adult. In it we are confronted with a child that is not destined to live long enough to enter adulthood. This young girl is living in a world of fairy tales while all about her the evils of adult war and torture are unfolding. For me the film asks what value would be the disillusionment of this child who is not destined to live as an adult? More profoundly the film also asks what disillusionment is lacking in the adults around her that allows them to carry on as they do? These adults are chasing mind abstractions not that different than the child’s. In a world of accelerating ecological disasters where most of our children’s children will most likely die (that is the truth you know), what should be the role of the stories we tell ourselves and most poignantly, the ones we tell them? Hiding from the monsters is not an option, so what are we to do?
The difficulty of psychological maturity is accepting the disillusionment that comes when we realize a dream we really wanted to believe in is not really real. The harsh truth that love dies breaks the hearts of everyone sooner or later. Sooner or later we all confront some event that teaches us very clearly that we are no more special in the eyes of nature than any of her other children; that we too will have our cup full of suffering, doubt and pain. The wise say life begins to make more sense as we get older and reflect on all that we have seen and heard, felt and feared, hoped for and achieved and hoped for and failed to achieve. They say it is only by allowing the ego dream to die that a glimpse of a deeper, truer dream comes about. The dogma dreams of the conceptual mind need to give way to the love dreams of the heart, dreams traced in your body with its unique patterns of nervous system structure: the many joys and pains that have left their tracks. This deeper dream is the one that just might be spoken between our heart and our “creator” at the one special moment set aside for us when we too return to the earth to rest in peace.
The harsh truth about a universe seemingly unconcerned with our dreams turns many adults into cynics. Many with a cheery surface persona are hiding a depth of doubt truly abysmal in its darkness. They see that birth and death are all around and recognize they too are but fruits of the same processes but they cannot bring themselves to trust in the intelligence that is on display everywhere. That intelligence seems to take no notice of oneself as an individual, yet manifests itself only through individuals; no two blades of grass are the same, no two leafs on a tree, no two trees… no two people. Ego cannot fix this. We are not, ultimately, in control. If the heart harbors doubt about trusting reality, no conscious program of over-work, over-belief, over-study or any other fanaticism will effect the depths. Something bigger than yourself must get involved. While this war is going on within there is very little real gentleness in one’s life.
Wisdom is said to come with age if a life is lived well. Our culture has no place for the wisdom of the elderly but this matters not one whit to the truth of things. The need to allow life to unfold in its own time and in its own fashion teaches us that all the quick fix approaches so popular in our consumer culture are not going to help address this abyss in the heart. There is no special scripture to read, no pill to pop, no superhero to elect. There might need to be times we just live through, not having all the answers and not knowing if what we are doing is the “right” thing. In those times it pays to cultivate patience. In those times it pays to rest in a basic trust of that which is bigger than us all. Mindful of ecology we recognize we are living in one of those times.