Reflections on the day I learned Santa didn’t exist

Posted December 23, 2013 by newsra8
Categories: Uncategorized

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As it turns out, they don’t sell golden ink, which was a real a problem for me one Christmas some twenty years ago. Perhaps I had watched The Santa Clause one too many times (whose clever title I only noticed this year, thanks to my wife; it took me an embarrassingly long time to catch the pun in “The Beatles,” too), or perhaps I was just ready to get to the bottom of things, but I needed some proof about Santa. I never seemed to get the Play Station I asked for, which was suspicious, considering my Dad forbade us to have one. Santa never seemed to eat the massive pile of cookies we’d leave him. And most of all, my best friend Rob had spied his present from Santa in his Mom’s closet the previous Christmas–a video game, of course.

I knew there were perfectly rational explanations for all of these events. Santa probably had to negotiate with my parents about which gifts were allowed in the house (my Dad was a lawyer, after all); at the end of the night, Santa did eat about two billion cookies, so he could be forgiven his dietary reticence in this one instance; and everybody knew that Santa may deliver some packages early to parents if it was a particularly busy season for him (he’s only human, after all). But it was enough to pique my curiosity, and it was time for Santa to show himself. So, I was off to find some golden ink with which I would write a letter to Santa, and which he would sign (in gold). As it turns out, golden ink either doesn’t exist, or doesn’t exist within the 200 yard radius that was my world, so I settled for regular ink. “All the better,” I thought, “His golden signature will stand out even more this way.” I crafted the letter, and after the annual reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, placed it atop the cookies and went to bed.

My parents must have felt sick.

The thing is, I don’t remember when I started believing in Santa, and I wasn’t one of those kids that got all hot and bothered about it at school. I certainly could not point to the hour I first believed–perhaps the seeds of my apostasy–or to a time when I had not thought Santa existed. And it isn’t as though my parents really worked the Santa thing. They didn’t dress up or make a huge deal about correcting us if we thanked them for a gift from Santa, and they’d always laugh when I would ask about the disturbing lyrics to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (I didn’t get the joke until about four years ago). My most vivid Santa memory besides this one is watching Greg Fishel track Santa’s flight on the Doppler 5000, something I’m sure Fishel could never do before taking three bracing shots of bourbon. (“I went to Penn State for this?”). With all due respect to Dallas Raines, Greg Fishel is the best.

The next morning, I was ready for the signature, but could not find it anywhere. Not the signature, but the letter itself. Quickly prioritizing this mystery in the shadow of an insane mountain of toys, I opened presents with gusto. Every Christmas was very much the same, and I mean that in the best way possible. They are warm, safe memories, with Randy Travis Christmas on in the background, my Mom watching with coffee in hand, and my Dad fighting the battle of “wrapping paper mountain,” perhaps throwing a few unlucky cast-offs into the fire. In later years, It’s a Wonderful Life might be on in the background, with Mr. Potter cracking me up for a sixteenth straight year. (“Happy New Year to you–in jail!”)

No matter what, though, there came the inevitable “pause-to-throw-away-the-wrapping-paper.” We would each grab an arm-full, stuff it into the trash can, and carry on. On this particular Christmas, I made sure I was the first one over to the can, and there found my Santa letter, unsigned. Confusion set in, and as so often happens with young boys, confusion led to immediate indignation at the person nearest. “Adam! Daniel! Did you throw away my letter?” They wisely ran for cover. “Mom! Why did you throw my letter away? Santa didn’t get a chance to sign it!” That’s all I really remember. I certainly don’t remember my Mom’s response to this. I was annoyed, and would have to wait another full year to add Santa to my autograph book (thus far consisting of Roberto Alomar, Ryan Klesko, and Eric Montross).

*****

In my mind’s eye, I find myself riding with my Dad a few days later. We are in Chapel Hill and it’s still cold; I think we are going to see a UNC game with friends. In any case, it is a crisp day, with me riding in the front seat of the light blue Accord, and being there alone with my Dad, both rarities at that age. I can’t remember how he broaches the subject, but the message is both sensitively put and clear: there is no Santa.

I am dumbstruck, crestfallen, and devastated all at once. “What about the Easter Bunny?” No. “The Tooth Fairy?” No. “What about…?” No. No, no, no. Tears well in my eyes, but at what I am not sure. I try my best to fight them back, and am as unsure as to why I am holding them back as to why they are coming. The way this news hits me is surprising. I’m not that kid, the one who beats up those who would dare defame the good name of Santa, or who insanely counts down until his next visit like an inmate waiting for parole. But Santa is a part of my mental furniture, as much as cubbies or old Mr. Lowry next door or the Oak tree in the front yard, and in one fell swoop, he is gone.

*****

For young parents who are afraid of “doing Santa” with their kids, they often say it may hurt a child’s trust in things, not least in them as parents. I can’t say that never happens, but it seems unlikely. It certainly wasn’t my experience. It sounds to me like a retroactive excuse for an easy, unthinking kind of “doubt” in later teenage years. (No respectable skeptic I know starts off talking about Santa Claus). At that age, I simply didn’t have the capacity for that kind of reflection.

Then again, it might have been different had I not looked over and noticed something else that had not been a part of my mental furniture up to that point: my Dad looked–sad. Almost like he was holding back tears (but that couldn’t be!). He certainly was concentrating hard on this very familiar road. In my memory (and perhaps only in mine, who knows?) it is a moment shared between us. Especially as I prepare to welcome a child of my own into the world, I think of that moment, and why I remember it, or flashing images from it, so vividly. Was it that Santa was dead (and we had killed him)? Was it that I was growing older? Was it that my Dad had shown (in my perception) the first signs of being a complex human being? (Dad sure was growing up fast!). Mostly, I think, it was this: they understood. They may have been concerned with telling me the emperor had no clothes, but the issue changed when I saw that my Dad seemed pretty upset about the whole thing. Which was more jarring than Santa not existing.

*****

Whatever existential dread the knowledge of this new, slightly-less-enchanted world engendered within me was forgotten a few minutes later under the intoxicating influence of a Big Mac and Coke. “Santa isn’t real,” I declared to my friend, who was eating the last fries with a similarly contented air, much like Grandaddy would enjoy a cigarette after a big meal. “Everybody knows that,” he said while chewing. Apparently this wasn’t earth-shattering news to everyone.

Of the many problems with Santa, one that my mother-in-law pointed out to her kids in later years is that Santa doesn’t really bring gifts; he brings rewards. Santa gives “good” kids a bribe and “bad” ones something to keep their house warm (assuming “bad” kids inevitably will be the same kids that need help with basic necessities?). The rewards are always materialistic, superfluous, “the latest.” “Very expensive,” Mr. Dink might say. It’s a capitalist’s dream, with Santa serving as the first lesson in Adam Smith’s idolatrous philosophy. In my mother-in-law’s terms, it’s about as far from true grace as you can get, and the real Saint Nick would probably have punched our Santa right in the face.

In my own way, that’s what I began to see that day with my Dad, and not for the last time: Santa was a guy who came around once a year and bribed me for my affection. My Dad was the one willing to have these sorts of conversations with me all year round, usually with him in his big tan chair as he peaked out behind a newspaper. My Mom was the one who always listened to what I was actually saying, rather than assuming what I “meant.” Night in and night out, getting tucked in was one part getting ready for bed and three parts interview. My Nana, I remember, would always tell us, “No matter what you do, we’ll always love you.” “Even if I murdered someone?” “Even then. I wouldn’t be happy. I’d be incredibly disappointed. But I’d always love you.” Santa was capricious; Santa was elusive; Santa didn’t give me what I asked for, nor did he stick around to tell me why a third-grader might not need a 10-inch pocket knife. At that age, if it wasn’t Santa, it would have been something else. Something to test and prod and find its limits. Something to explore and doubt and investigate, and see how the world responded to my questions. In a cold front seat, I peaked behind some invisible curtain and saw that my parents were more complex than I had imagined; that they might not be perfect, but that they weren’t going anywhere; and that it was safe to prod at the world.

Santa or no Santa, I can only hope my son will realize the same, as time goes on.

Life is Simple, 3.0

Posted June 28, 2013 by newsra8
Categories: Quotes

Tags:

On this blog, anyway.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.

I mean, if Albert Einstein said it, I’m listening.

The Task of the Theologian

Posted May 17, 2013 by newsra8
Categories: James Wm. McClendon, Quotes, Theology

Tags: , , , ,

I had a great conversation yesterday with a dear friend about the task, the role, and the importance of “systematic theology” as a discipline in the coming age. We disagreed pretty significantly at points, but we fundamentally agreed on one point: theology as it has been done in the modern period (my terminology), marked by the isolated (white male) individual dropping tomes of knowledge on the world from his lonely office, should come to a swift end.

Of course, this doesn’t mean theology, even “systematic” theology, needs to or even should go away – only that its emphases and orientation must change, drastically – for my money, in such a way that will hopefully produce better theologies, better theologians, and better people who do theology. What should this new (old) orientation be? My buddy Jim McClendon is here to help us out:

Any existing human conviction can be located within a particular community of speech and (other) practice, in which what is said and believed can be assessed according to existing community standards. The theologian, for example, is occupied with fitting particular beliefs into the general web of discerned community beliefs, sometimes trimming, enlarging, or rearranging the particulars in order to achieve maximum correspondence and coherence. The attempt to find a viable, economical statement of the community’s narrative tradition is equivalent to seeking the irreducible current statement of its obligatory beliefs or dogmas. To express the matter in McClendon and Smith terms, doctrinal theology is the quest for those beliefs that deserve to be recognized as the convictions of the community. (Philosophers who fail to see this communal dimension of the theological task are in poor position to correct any of theology’s deliverances.) “‘Convictions’ After Twenty Years”

Put differently: theology should be, will be done from one’s position in a community of conviction. It is second-order. This in no way denigrates the task of systematic (perhaps “coherent” is a better descriptor?) theology, but it should be of a different character than many systematic theologies that have been done thus far. We can learn from them – we should learn from them – but for my money, theology done in this manner is more faithful, more risky, and potentially more interesting than the other.

Of course, all this should be taken with a grain of salt – I am an ethicist, after all.

Buddy the Elf, Christ Figure Extraordinaire

Posted December 21, 2012 by newsra8
Categories: Dostoevsky, Movies

Tags: , ,

My wife and I recently had our annual Elf watching event of the Christmas season. There are several movies we watch every year around this time (only some of which are proper Christmas films, and others of which are totally ridiculous despite my love for them), and Elf has made the rotation. Congratulations Jon Favreau, you’re in our lives forever.

This go around, I noticed that if you were so inclined, Elf could be put in line with a great number of artistic masterpieces that have a Christ figure as its hero (Dostoevsky’s “Prince Myshkin,” William Golding’s “Simon,”… Favreau’s “Buddy the Elf”). Don’t believe me? I think these facts speak for themselves.

  • Buddy is a child born of questionable parentage
  • Buddy is a prodigal who descends from the north
  • Buddy embodies a strange way of life that is misunderstood by his peers
  • Nevertheless, he wins over a few people, gaining a few followers and lights up their world
  • He descends into the ordinary world of the mail room, giving up his natural clothes to do so
  • Buddy has a crisis of faith on a bridge (Eloi! Eloi!),
  • is vindicated by Santa,
  • and ascends into the heavens, leaving behind a message of Christmas cheer and a community of folks singing in his wake
  • A book is written in his wake, preserving his story for generations to come

There you have it. Move over, Harry Potter; outta the way, Sydney Carton – Buddy the Elf is here. His law is niceness, and his gospel is smiles. (I just threw up in my mouth a little bit writing that last part).

Webster’s Dictionary Defines “Success” As…

Posted December 20, 2012 by newsra8
Categories: Alasdair MacIntyre, Ludwig Wittgenstein

Tags: , , , ,

Generally, this is the most boring sentence that can be uttered, and to start off a term paper, it’s an unforgivable sin. (For God’s sake [literally], use some creativity!) However, I recently heard an interesting use of Webster’s that actually seemed worth the quote. If you look up the definition of “success” in Webster’s today, it will say that it is “a degree or measure of succeeding” (always that first, totally useless definition), but then say that it is a “favorable or desirable outcome,” or “the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.” In earlier versions, say in 1937, success was defined as “that which comes after; hence, consequence, issue, or result, of an endeavor or undertaking, whether good or bad; the outcome of effort.”

250px-Alasdair_MacIntyre

No, that’s not Alfred Hitchcock.

As good ol’ Alasdair MacIntyre shows us in A Short History of Ethics (and continues to show us throughout the rest of his life, together constituting what he has called “an interminably long history of ethics”), words not only get their meaning from their use (Wittgenstein), but very obviously and radically change in meaning over time. What the pre-Homeric “Greeks” meant by virtue, for instance, is very different from what Homer meant by it, and then again, different from Plato, and so on.

So, way more interesting than a “what Webster says, goes” approach to dictionary use would be a comparative use – whenever an undergrad consults Webster’s to create a lazy introduction to their paper, perhaps they should have both a contemporary and century-old copy in front of them. Perhaps then we’d remember the contingent nature of our definitions, and how value-laden they actually are. After all (I’m no relativist – thanks, again, to MacIntyre), isn’t the definition currently given poll-position in Webster’s not only weak, but also telling of where our priorities today really lie?

Newtown

Posted December 17, 2012 by newsra8
Categories: Augustine, Imagination, Peace and Violence, Quotes

Tags: , , ,

Augustine: “You, O Lord, turned me back upon myself. You took me from behind my own back, where I had placed myself because I did not wish to look upon myself.” Perhaps the day has come in which we no longer are able to avoid the violent reality of the world we’ve made for ourselves, and, seeing ourselves rightly for the first time, seek healing, seek peace – not “in our hearts,” but in the concrete ordinariness of a world that has chosen to “live by the gun,” and thus die by the gun. Here’s hoping.

Evil is Boring

Posted August 27, 2012 by newsra8
Categories: Dostoevsky, Jacques Ellul, Movies, Peace and Violence, Quotes, Simone Weil

I spent the better part of this summer translating parts of L’Enracinement by Simone Weil. It was tiring, to be sure, but it at least gave me a chance to become reacquainted with Simone Weil, that wonderfully enigmatic Catholic mystic-activist . In the course of translating her thoughts on the alienation inherent to the nation-state (the average person, particularly the average worker, is uprooted and alienated from his very self by means of the modern fascination with technology and disdain for wonder – a point reminiscent of some themes by Jacques Ellul), I found myself returning to her other works – particularly Gravity and Grace. In skimming this book, I rediscovered one of my favorite quotes:

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. Therefore ‘imaginative literature’ is either boring or immoral (or a mixture of both). It only escapes from this alternative if in some way it passes over to the side of reality through the power of art — and only genius can do that. (Gravity and Grace, 120)

Rock on

In the course of a conversation with a mentor who had recently travelled to Israel and seen the Palestine-Israeli conflict first hand, this exact sentiment was expressed: when you see The Dark Knight Rises, evil looks so interesting, so intriguing, so imitable; good seems altogether monotonous. In fiction-land, the life of the pre-fallen Harvey Dent looks much less appealing than the Joker. But in reality, the Joker is as dull as he is unappealing. When the Joker is on the big screen, he has a sort of morbid appeal; when someone imitates it him in a movie theatre in Colorado, it isn’t fascinating, although it certainly is horrible. This is why it is so hard to write about moral privation in a way that both captures the reader and also displays what it really looks like in the world. For my money, no one walks this line better than Dostoevsky.

In any case, Simone Weil is a (not so) hidden treasure worth a read. Check her out.


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