A few weeks before Christmas my granddaughter told me, in conspiratorial tones, that some kids in her class said that there’s no Santa; parents put out presents early on Christmas morning.
“Do you think they’re right?” I asked.
“No! That’s ridiculous!” she said. “My parents would never get up that early!”
I’ve tweaked her on Santa before: how does he get into houses with no chimneys? She believes in the tooth fairy too, is sure that the tooth fairy is a girl (“how do you know?” I unhelpfully ask), and has perfect faith that a lost tooth would be recompensed even on a sleepover because the tooth fairy (who, by the way, is invisible) knows the location and status of every baby tooth in every child’s mouth everywhere.
Oh the innocence of childhood, the magical thinking. Do you miss it?
Fear not, dear reader, because you and I and every human being on the planet fill our minds with equally fervent beliefs which are equally disconnected from reality, sustained by mental habits as invisible to us as the tooth fairy, but which have much greater force in our lives than the tooth fairy or Santa has in any child’s life.
No, I’m not talking about religious or political beliefs or the mishugenah way we fill in the gaps in our ideas of how the world works. I’m talking about our belief in the Story Of Our Lives, that story we polish and embellish every opportunity we have, papering over its gaping holes, far more gaping than the question of how a large man carrying a large bag of toys gets into locked houses with no chimneys all over the world in a 24-hour period.
Don’t believe me? Watch yourself as you tell your story, to yourself or to other people. Do you smooth over anomalies? Confidently make statements that you couldn’t possibly swear to in a court of law? Justify your actions, especially when you think maybe they might be wrong? Make you and your friends look good? Make others look bad? Attribute motives to others that you couldn’t possibly know?
Do you, in other words, routinely lead yourself and everyone around you, just slightly, but still, astray?
If you are human, the answer is: yes, to all of the above. And the sum of all those slight astray-nesses from each of us separately and together is serious derangement.
It is as if each of us clings to a jerry-built house, frantically shoring it up whenever it seems like it might crash down, and the more we shore it up the less stable it becomes. When all we have to do is …
What? To tweak the Miranda ruling a little, “any answer will eventually turn against you.” Instead, let me return to my granddaughter, who asked my iPhone’s virtual assistant Siri, “Is Santa Claus alive?” Siri, having been well programmed not to disappoint little girls, offered a Web search. But my granddaughter’s certainty has turned into a question, and that’s the only place to start.