I asked Ingrid on the way to school the other morning if she could remember when she stopped believing in Santa Clause. She’s 13 now and I miss those days when she would stand by the tree in her Dora pajamas and chatter about Santa coming. She didn’t hesitate to answer my question. She said, “The year Santa never ate the cookies and milk.”
Pilar and I were together then and we all lived in the house—Ingrid, her mom Claudia, and Pilar’s mom, Olivia, and Pilar and me. I remember I had set out the cookies and milk after Ingrid was in bed asleep and I always ate them before I went to bed and then would leave a note saying how good they were, signed by Santa. But that night for some reason, maybe I was just too sleepy, I went off to bed and left them there on a little stool by the tree. I don’t remember Ingrid saying much about it at the time. But apparently when she saw the cookies and milk untouched on Christmas morning, all the doubts she’d had about the whole Santa enterprise, finally shattered the myth. Ingrid knew Santa would never be so rude as to not sit down and eat a few chocolate chip cookies and drink a small glass of milk while he wiped his brow and listened to be sure the reindeer were okay on the roof. Maybe there wasn’t a Santa at all, she must have thought. Maybe some of the kids at kindergarten were right. Santa is just make-believe.
The existence of Santa Clause is only one of the things we all have to eventually give up. There are other more startling things to disavow as we get older.
Most of us, whatever our age, have always believed we lived in the greatest country in the world. We were taught that from childhood. And it seemed right. At least for a long time it did. World War II was before my time but I remember my parents and grandparents talking about it. I remember seeing my Uncle Jay’s medal as a Marine and my Aunt Laura’s picture in her Women’s Army Corps uniform hanging in the hallway of my grandparents’ house. I remember my Dad talking proudly about his days in the Navy. I heard about the War in sermons and at school. I read about it in books at the library and saw old clips of it in movies. And the message was that America proved how great a nation it was through that long bloody ordeal. People worked together for the cause. The whole nation was one.
Then came the Vietnam War with its endless body bags of our young soldiers, and the mayhem in the jungle we saw on television every night. Students fiercely protested, sometimes violently, calling the war a sham, and many refused to fight in it. The Hippie Movement came out of that chaos and it was made up of young people giving up on their country and escaping into free love and drugs and whatever else they could find to forget that the dream of a great nation was disappearing, that it all seemed like a vast lie. There were the assassinations—President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. There was the Civil Rights Movement with its brutal race riots and killings and repugnant threatening talk everywhere. And America seemed to be coming apart. And in many ways it was.
Somehow we got through all of that, but not without deep psychic wounds and memories that not all of our leaders are just and decent and tell the truth. We learned that greed is a powerful presence in our government; that war can be a very crooked business. The 80s and 90s were attempts to rebuild our American spirit, to give us that old sense of superiority again, to make us believe the myth all over.
Then came 911. And we never really got the point of that horrific catastrophe. We just learned to hate more deeply and often without reason. We never as a people figured out the whole story. Not some conspiracy nonsense but rather why Bin Laden wanted to destroy our economic backbone, why he went after the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. People kept saying he and the terrorists attacked us because they hated our freedoms. No. What they hated was our bullying interference in their lives, our disrespect for their beliefs, our indifference to their people. Bin Laden wasn’t just trying to kill Americans; he wanted to send a deadly message-- for the West to leave him and his people alone. He wanted all of us to see that Muslim extremists ferociously hated us because of our interference in their countries, our disparaging their religion, our disrupting their culture and dismissing their people for the price of oil and power and whatever other ruthless pursuits we were hell bent on having at their expense. That’s what 911 was about. And yet we still deny it. We haven’t grown up enough to see the myths we have created about ourselves. We’re afraid of the doubts we have about us as a people, as a nation, and so we pretend there are no doubts. And look where we are.
Our country is riddled with fear. We fear everyone and everything. And fear if unchecked leads inevitably to violence and lawlessness and ruin.
Eventually, we realize our parents will die, and that we will die someday too. We realize that God is obviously not in control of everything after all. We learn that life is complex and sometimes cruel, that people can be wicked, and that not everyone lives happily ever after.
And when we finally grow up, we see that not only did Santa never really exist, but that some of our myths about our country didn’t either.
Terrorists don’t just appear like gargoyles on a building to menace us. Something creates them. Something feeds their evil. Something sends them after us. What part have we played in their villainy? And could we ever make things right?
I think of the poet Rilke’s staggering insight, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
You could make a myth out of that, or if taken seriously and practiced, you could build a whole new world.
© 2015 Timothy Moody