Thursday, April 28, 2016

On Belief

      A while back, I wrote a post about the challenges of being an atheist Jew raising a kid.  That post was mostly about the importance of preserving cultural heritage while at the same time acknowledging that I do not believe in god and it is not necessary for me to encourage that belief in my child.  But lately, I have come to realize that the discussion regarding belief is even more broad than that.  We expect children to believe little lies, to believe in magic, to believe in the powers of the imagination.   The real question is, why?
I will never get this 
      Most adult Christians I know do not believe in Santa Claus. I'm not going to argue the existence or divinity of Jesus, that is neither here nor there.  Even the most religious Christians I know do not believe in Santa Claus.  In fact, many are upset that the notion of Santa has taken over the *real* meaning for Christmas, that of the birth of their Lord.  So why do we perpetuate this myth?  Why do grown adults dress up as Santa, take their children to visit Santas in the mall?  Let's take religion out of the equation entirely.  Many children when presented with an adult in a Batman costume, will believe this person to be the actual Batman.  Many children when taken to Disneyland to get their pictures taken with actors in princess costumes, are told that these are the actual princesses and they believe.  They ask the princesses where their horses are, they ask Batman how Robin is doing.  The adults in these situations, both the adults in costumes and the parents of the children, perpetuate the myth that these are the actual heroes, the actual characters from their stories.

     A few months ago, for my daughter's 5th birthday, my parents and I took her to Disneyland.  My daughter has long lost interest in Disney princesses, in the idea of princesses entirely.  Whereas even just a year ago she claimed that the Elsa at her friend's birthday party was the real Elsa and the Elsa that she saw at Disneyland was pretend, she now held no illusions:  those princesses were ladies in costumes.  HOWEVER, when my daughter participated in the Jedi training institute, she really and truly believed that she was using the powers of the Force, that the Force was real, that Darth Vader was real, that Chewbacca and Han Solo and Finn and Rey were all 100% absolutely real, they just lived in space.  The reason?  Well, they were played by real people.  The Disney princesses were pretend, according to her, because they were cartoons.  That as much she understood.  But films with real actors?  That was real.  I tried to explain to her that it was all pretend, but it never really sank in. I would tell her it was pretend, but she didn't really understood what that meant.

     A few weeks ago The Force Awakens came out on DVD.  She had already seen the film 3 times in the theaters and had occasional nightmares about it, despite the fact that she loved it.  Kylo Ren was scary.  I tried to reassure her that it was all made up, but despite that she would have bad dreams. We watched the film together on DVD and she seemed fine during the film, but when it came time to go to bed, she told me she couldn't sleep for fear of having another nightmare about Kylo Ren.  Instead of telling her once again that it was all made up, I showed her.  I pulled up the "Please Mr. Kennedy" song from Inside Llewyn Davis where Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, and Justin Timberlake sing together.

     "See," I said, "This is Oscar Isaac.  He is an actor.  In Star Wars he plays Poe, but in this movie he plays a singer.  This is Adam Driver.  He plays Kylo Ren.  In this movie he plays a singer too.  In real life Oscar and Adam are friends."
     Then I showed her more pictures of Adam Driver taken by paparazzi when he was walking down
A random picture of Adam Driver
that helped my daughter not have
bad dreams
the street, pictures of Adam Driver wearing normal clothes, pictures of Adam Driver doing press for the movie.

     "See Adam goes to work every day and he puts on a costume, just like you have your costumes, and he plays pretend and people take pictures with a camera.  Then at the end of the day Adam goes home to his house or his trailer, which is like a big RV like your grandpa has, and he heats up his food in the microwave, and he goes poop.  Adam Driver is just a regular person who gets paid money to dress up and pretend."

     "But how does he use the Force?" she asked me, "What about the real Jedi?"

     "Do you really want to know?" I asked her.  I wasn't sure.  Should I really ruin everything, ruin her imagination, destroy her belief entirely?

     "There is no such thing as the Force.  It is pretend.  One day a long time ago, a man named George Lucas thought of a movie called Star Wars.  And he wrote the story.  And then people dressed up in costumes and pretended his story."

     "But when I was at Disneyland we all worked together to use the Force to raise the temple thing," she replied.

     "It was an elevator.  A man in the back pushed a switch and it made the elevator go up and down."
      The next day after she woke up (after having no nightmares, I might add) I showed her the special features on the Star Wars DVD.  She watched with rapt attention as people built the sets, as they used wires to throw people across the room, as they used computers to make spaceships fly through the sky.  She watched as actors talked about how they got ready for their roles, how they felt when they started working on Star Wars because they were such big fans already.  She watched as engineers constructed puppets, masks, costumes, droids.  She was positively fascinated.  I thought I was taking something away from her, destroying her innocence somehow.  Instead I only sparked her creativity even more.  The Force was something magical that only Jedi could do.  This was science.  This was art.  This was technology.  This was acting.  These were real people.  This was something she could do.  For the past 2 weeks the only thing she has watched on TV have been the bonus features from Star Wars.  She watches and rewatches the craftspeople hard at work.  She calls them by name.

"There's Adam," my daughter says

   "There's Adam," she says when Kylo Ren walks across the screen.  "There's Mark, there's Daisy."

     She isn't afraid anymore.  She doesn't have nightmares anymore.  She sees the people as people, truly as people, not as the characters they portray.  I was a little sad in a way, sad that she doesn't have that naivete.  Something had changed in her, she grew up a little bit, she put childish things behind her.

     Or so I thought.  Until she lost her tooth 2 days ago.  And told me most adamantly that we needed to put her tooth under her pillow so that the tooth fairy would come.  At 10 o'clock at night, I wrote my daughter a note in pink flowing script and signed it from the tooth fairy.  I put it in an envelope along with a Sacajawea dollar and put it under her pillow.  In the morning, she burst into my room to show me the letter she had gotten and asked me to read it.  She asked me quite plainly if I had left it there.  Maybe I should have told her the truth.  In fact, I'm not sure why I didn't.  Instead I said,

    "What do you think?"

    To which she replied, "I think the tooth fairy did it.  How do you think she knew my name, though?  I bet she was flying outside and then heard you talking to me."

   "Yep, I guess that must be it"

    I don't know why I maintained the fiction.  I don't know why I maintained the lie.  Maybe it is just sort of fun to believe: to believe your letter is coming from Hogwarts, to believe that fairies deliver money in exchange for teeth, that men in red suits deliver presents.  Perhaps in a world that is so seemingly mundane and dull, that to touch a little something magical makes us feel something more. I don't quite know the answer.   All I know is that I now I have a 5 year old daughter who calls Kylo Ren "Adam," who wants to be a scientist when she grows up, and who believes in the tooth fairy.  I don't think that's such a terrible thing.


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