Trying to unpack the most basic steps of the “Manifesto” is harder than it looks. I want to make things as simple as possible…but no simpler. “The Hero is confronted with the challenge” is the first step, but what does it mean? This is always a desire to either decrease pain or gain pleasure. It sometimes requires action (our big-screen blockbusters) but ALWAYS requires a clarifying of the Big Two questions: “who am I?” and “what is true?” Always.
Once upon a time, like most kids, I believed in Santa Claus. Christmas was a time of mystery and magic and joy and family togetherness. Waited for it all year. “Be good!” I was told. “And good things will come.”
And I tried. Oh, how I tried to be good. As I got older, there were problems, of course. I began to hear whispers that Santa wasn’t real. I caught my parents making a bicycle late Christmas Eve. I noticed that there were multiple Santas in different stores, and on different street corners. I noticed that poor children got fewer toys from Santa than rich ones. Something was wrong.
But…but…Mommy and Daddy were the source of all good things. Without them I had nothing. I trusted them completely. Surely they wouldn’t lie to me. Would they..?
And even if I decided that they would, and had…how would I deal with the information? Did I distrust them? Did I PRETEND to still believe so as to manipulate them into buying me presents they really couldn’t afford? Well, yeah, I did that. I think most kids did.
But…but what did I think about it? What was true? As I grew older, the first temptation was to be a wise ass, and tell the younger kids that there was no Santa. Wow! I was smart! Then…I saw that that caused them pain. Did I have anything to transform that pain into pleasure? Actually…no, I didn’t. “I’m wising them up” I thought. “How dare my parents lie to me! It’s all bullshit!”
But as I grew even older, I saw how hard my Mom and Dad had worked to choreograph those moments of joy. Wondered why they wouldn’t take personal responsibility for giving me and my sister those presents. Wouldn’t that have been the better thing? They bought them. Why didn’t they want those hugs and kisses and thanks?
As time passed, and paid my own bills and took adult responsibility for myself, I began to see how hard life could be, how often callous. And that it seemed odd that people were more polite around Christmas time. Even adults. There was something magical about it, even for those who were not devout, didn’t believe in the deeper Christian story behind the exterior holiday. And later, studying NLP came across the concept of “anchoring”–that highly emotionalized actions and experiences become associated with events. And that when this happens in childhood, we can associate them for a lifetime.
Oh. My parents had sacrificed not just their time and energy, but the joy of hearing “thank you” because someone had done that for them. They had learned that this was a good thing. Why?
Because children believe in gods and monsters. We grow up in a world where resources are given to us from no source we can understand. We do not understand money. Or work (unless we grow up on a farm!). We understand love, and hugs, and food, and shelter. And love Mommy and Daddy beyond measure because they provide these things. We’re wired to. And Santa…who is everywhere, in many forms, impossibly…once upon a time brought the greatest gifts of all.
Somewhere deep within us, we still remember that magic. And the entire culture remembers it, once a year. And we smile at each other, and are sweeter, and kinder, and more giving. Because we were given to. And that sweetness is a good thing. And good for our children. And most parents forgo a few hugs and kisses to give their children that same gift, the gift they were given, that can make a stranger’s kindness a trigger to remember the best days of our lives, and remind us to pass that blessing on.
And I realized it might have been “smart” to see through Santa…but it was not “wise” to rip that myth away from children unless I had something to replace it with, a culturally held story that communicates across race, gender, nationality, even religion. A shared language of love and giving. It is “smart” to see the artificiality. But it is ego to rip it away from children unless you have something to replace it with. I’m not smart enough to replace all of that.
Everyone will come to their own conclusions about these things. That is part of the process of maturation. But when my daughter Nicki was born, and began to grow, I watched her eyes alight with wonder at the decorations, and her burbling with delight as she opened gifts, and REMEMBERED what that felt like in my own life, and all my parents had given me, sometimes at great costs to themselves. And committed to creating the same wonder for her, if I could.
And knew that there would be no time when I told her to doubt the magic. That she would, with the passage of time, come to doubt it for herself…and that that would be just a little sad. That my son Jason in one year totally believed in the “Elf on the Shelf”…but by the next year began to wonder, and by the next was totally in on the joke, but pretended to believe…because it was fun. And of course because he could con me into buying presents I couldn’t afford. Because Santa.
I was like my Mom and Dad, at their best. Giving because it gave joy.
What is true? Who am I? I was someone who lived to bring joy to my family. We move away from pain and toward pleasure. No one can tell an adult what to believe, or that is not an adult. We have to make those decisions about every story we were told, whether about Love, or fitness, or success…or Santa Claus.
We grasp that there are facts: love makes life easier. We can anchor intense experiences into our bodies and trigger them for a lifetime. We need shared languages to create a culture. That Santa Claus is not factual.
Or…we can see that, while not “factual”, some stories are in a sense “true.” That they contains internested lessons that can keep people alive in lonely days. All cultures have such myths, sigils that represent deeper truths.
Is a flag worth dying for? As a piece of cloth, no. How about as a symbol of a nation? Die for a political abstraction? Absurd?
Well…how about the fact that a group that cannot rally, and sometimes go to meet an enemy BEFORE that enemy reaches their homes, will have to fight as individuals with the Huns burning their towns and killing their children in the streets. But a culture that can abstract to rally around an idea…or a piece of cloth…can be motivated to fight, and prepare to fight, before the threat actually arrives. And therefore has a greater chance of survival. Yeah, a paradox. Fighting for a “mere” symbol can actually be the best way of protecting what is real.
Can this be abused? You betcha. But is it necessary? Looking at human history…it seems hugely valuable. You want to fight BEFORE your house starts burning.
Teaching our children to believe in a lie can help them understand what is true.
Paradox. Stories are all about that. Suffering the pain of discipline today: exercising, balancing your checkbook, telling an uncomfortable truth…can stave off death, disease and disaster tomorrow.
What is the STORY you tell? The “Hero confronts the challenge” that the story he believes in says: “it is time to act.” Or that the story he believes in is a lie, and must be changed. The map doesn’t match the territory.
Santa isn’t real. But it isn’t clever to say so to the younger children, who deserve their chrysalis period. Stories are not true. But neither are our direct perceptions through flawed senses. We ORGANIZE our minds, select the perceptions, emotionalize them and ignore the irrelevant…to create meaning.
And communicate that meaning through stories.
The quality of our lives is the quality of the stories we tell. Even if they aren’t quite factual. Lifewriting loves to look at the connection between the inner and outer stories, and simply asks writers and readers and filmmakers and filmgoers to examine this insanely powerful tool, and begin to use it for their own direct benefit, and the benefit of mankind.
Trust me: if you don’t use it consciously, it will be used against you. And the lies stuffed down your sleeping throats will be a lot less benign than a jolly elf in a red suit.