Shopping at noon on the Saturday before Christmas is not a brilliant plan for those people like me that abhor crowds. I am done with my own shopping, but I needed to take my son shopping and he wanted to go to Target, the heart of the Christmas beast. After trolling the parking lot for about 20 minutes looking for an open space, we decided we might be better off trying a midnight run.
While driving around, my son and I were listening to This American Life, or as I like to call it, “The Unintended Consequences” show. The theme this week was of course Christmas. One of the stories piqued my interest. It was the story of a family that went to great lengths to make their children not only believe in Santa, but to have interactions with many magical characters from the Santa myth.
This had gone on for decades and was a source of joy and wonder across the generations, with one notable exception. One of the sons was a true believer and refused to relinquish the beliefs at the “normal” time in childhood. He continued to believe the myth and forcefully proclaim it well into his high school years. As you can imagine, this caused him a great deal of grief. Then at some point in high school, he overheard some of his aunts talking about the myth and the roles that various family members had played over the years.
The son was crushed. Predictably, the kid became a cynic and generally untrusting in his relationships for years. He finally did come to terms with the perceived betrayal, but at age thirty-something said that he would never revisit the myth with his children.
They interviewed the father for the story. His was a remarkable point of view. He steadfastly refused to admit he had tricked his children in any way. He said they had an experience, it was magical and who was he to say whether or not it was real.
Encapsulated in this little story is the struggle of my life over the past couple of years and with it was the path forward. For most of my life, I have been the son in this story. But in the last year or so, I have been striving to become the father.
Religions are the stories societies tell each other generation after generation to come to grips with not only what is, but what is inexplicable. As children these stories are magical and bring order to a complex world. But over time, our observations and experiences run into conflict with the stories we have been taught. At some point, everyone person of faith must find their own set point of what is truth and what is myth. Like most things in life, the extreme in either direction can be destructive.
When I was growing up, I had an invisible friend named Jesus. We spoke whenever we were along. We sang song. He watched me play. It was great. As I grew older, I learned more about my friend and found that far beyond being just a silent companion, he could do amazing magic. I saw him heal people who visited our church. One particular Sunday night a visitor in a wheelchair got up and walked and then danced around the church. Sadly, Sister Walls, a member of the congregation with Polio, did not have enough faith that night to get out of her chair.
As I got older, I learned that the adults in our church had their own magical languages. When I was of age, I too got my own magical language. I watched as kids from my Jr and Sr High Schools were possessed and then delivered from demonic possession.
My friends and neighbors of course thought we were kooks, but they just did not know the truth.
I stubbornly held fast to these beliefs until reality smacked me around enough that the magic lost its grip. Once faith lost its grip on me, I fled to the other extreme. Bitter cynicism filled the void left by shattered faith. And I began a 10 year journey into a lonely void.
But over the last year, I have begun to rekindle the magic. But it is different. My faith, if you can call it that, has gone from being, “the world IS,” to “the world is LIKE.” Instead of trying to systematically fit reality into the mold of my faith. I am trying to explain what my life is like using the language and experience of spirituality. I choose to use the incantations of prayer and the practices of magic, not because I am trying to change the world or appease an all powerful deity. But I choose to use these practices because they make me feel more connected to nature and my fellow beings, be they cat or colossus. Whether real or fantasy, it does not matter. If it makes me feel more aligned with the rest of life, then that is good enough.
And in a couple of days, I will fully enjoy both Santa’s arrival and the incarnation of God.