The Lies We Tell...
And Why We Believe Them
Now that the holidays are in the rearview mirror, it feels like the right time to bring up the subject of lying.
Everywhere I turn, I’m seeing accusations of lying: The media are lying! Governments are lying! Politicians are lying! Doctors! Pharmaceutical companies! Hospitals! Statisticians! Anti-vaxxers! Vaxxers! I could keep going…
But I don’t want to wade into that muck. We all know that there are many, many reasons to lie, and that our world right now is steeped in prevarications of all sizes, shapes, and intentions.
I want to talk about one very specific, personal experience of lying.
In November of 2000, my husband and I came to an uncomfortable fork in the road. Until that point, our children had been too young to really understand the whole Christmas concept, and we had successfully postponed answering the inevitable question we both dreaded:
Do we pretend that Santa Claus is real, or no?
We could no longer kick the can down the road. Our eldest was three, and was beyond inquisitive. We needed to make a decision, and soon.
Together, night after night after we put the kids to bed, we debated the merits and demerits of the issue. Eventually, we laid out a list – not unlike Mr. Claus himself, ironically:
It would be fun for us as parents to create a sense of magic.
It would generate excitement and wonder in our kids.
The story of Santa Claus reinforces the notion of giving.
The culture supports it with stories, music, books, films, and advertisements. How great to be a part of that mainstream culture!
All of our children’s friends and classmates believe. How would our children fit in? Might our kids “ruin it” for all the other kids?
We both believed in Santa and we turned out fine.
We would be lying to our children.
You can see the dilemma. Six Pros, one Con. But one helluva Con.
When it came down to it, neither of us was willing to place our kids in the uncomfortable position of being the one “nonbeliever.” So we pretended Santa was real, like so many other parents before us, including our own.
Sure, we never OUTRIGHT SAID that he was real. We clung to vague phrases like “a lot of people believe he’s real” and “the world has magic in it,” and we allowed them to draw their patently untrue conclusions. We told ourselves that it was for their greater good, that we weren’t ACTUALLY LYING.
We left cookies and milk out for Santa, and treats for the reindeer – food that mysteriously morphed into crumbs and carrot-tops. We had them write letters to Santa, and he wrote letters in return; we left “footprints” in the fireplace ash. And the whole time, we told ourselves we were just bystanders to the misinformation. It wasn’t our fault that they believed with every fiber of their trusting, gullible little hearts!
Every year, we breathed a sigh of relief that none of the three actually asked us point-blank if Santa was real. We had decided that if they did, we would tell them the truth.
And then it happened. Two days after Christmas, our then-eight-year-old daughter flopped herself on our bed, stared me straight in the eye, and said, “Is Santa Claus real?” I blinked, and paused as the internal panic set in. Then I countered, “Do you really want to know?”
It was a ploy to buy time, but it was also a genuine question. I had a hunch that she didn’t, not really.
“Yes,” she stated coolly, but I could see the doubt.
“Okay…” Here goes, I thought. “No, honey, Santa is not a real person. Daddy and I make all of the presents happen.”
I could see the wheels turn. Uh oh.
“Then what about the Easter Bunny? The Tooth Fairy?” She stared at me with an unholy intensity, a penetrating desperation to maintain her teetering happiness.
Now what? Was I supposed to burn down her entire house of belief? But how could I keep lying? It had to end someday, didn’t it?
I took a deep breath. “They aren’t real, either.”
It’s hard to describe what it was like to watch her world view crumple. She literally folded as her midsection lost all its air, and her little round face splintered into grief. I put my arms around her, heartbroken for her and for my complicity in her pain.
My mind raced as she sobbed. I have to fix this somehow, I thought.
“Sweetie? You know what? You can still believe, if you want. Other people do. Some people believe that all of those people are real, and you can too if you want.”
She looked at me, a glimmer of hope behind the tears.
She nodded. “Okay,” she sniffled, “I will.”
Today, as a grown-up woman of 22, she says she figured that by believing, the magic would continue, and she could remain in the safe, familiar world of childhood.
I tell you all of this because I’d like to share some insights from this one example of lying.
First, I’ve learned that it is far easier to become complicit in a lie than to go against the grain.
I can’t know the deepest intentions of the individuals in our world who hold powerful positions. I do know what my husband’s and my intentions were, however, and even though they came from the very best part of ourselves, something wasn’t totally right. I knew it, and he knew it, and that’s why we had those nightly conversations.
We talked ourselves into ignoring those inklings that lying to our children might not be for their ultimate good. Why? Because bucking trends is not enjoyable. Human beings are hardwired to follow the herd. The “safety in numbers” thing is real — a biological necessity, not an evolutionary flaw.
If you have any doubt of this, or you’d just like to remind yourself of group conformity in all its powerful splendor, watch one of the Asch Conformity Experiments or Derren Brown’s frighteningly relevant documentary, “The Push.”
It was so very easy to slot ourselves in with the prevailing Christmas culture – all laid out for parents like a ready-made Happy Meal, so enticing for a strung-out mom and dad hungry for solutions and too exhausted to think too deeply about anything.
I’m not proud to say it, but the discomfort of lying to our kids wasn’t great enough to overcome the desire to stay within the accepted norms of community.
Second, I’ve learned something about the seduction of belief.
I see now how badly we want to believe lies, because we don’t want to face the consequences of the truth. What will we lose? What might have to change?
My daughter didn’t want to lose her childhood, so she willed herself to believe in something she knew deep down wasn’t real.
I’ve mentioned loss of community, but there were other possible perceived downsides of “outing” Santa as well: helping our children navigate their otherness from their peers; having difficult discussions with parents of their peers; explaining our choice to disapproving family members.
Yet aren’t those “downsides” just openings for more authenticity? Often it’s those difficult conversations that are catalysts for greater understanding, which in turn lead to deeper relationships.
Which leads me to our relationship to the story of Santa Claus. That’s one possible outcome I didn’t fully examine at the time, but in retrospect, I think embracing Santa as myth, not reality, would have been very, very healthy for all of us.
The Santa Claus myth is filled with weird stuff that I never liked. Doling out gifts based on some sort of point system feels like a Protestant Work Ethic for Kids, and I REALLY didn’t like the idea of my kids feeling like they were under constant surveillance (“he knows when you are sleeping,” etc.). All of it seems like a primer for future participation in organized religion, or docile citizenry, or both.
Myths exist to teach us the deeper truths about our human existence. If we take these myths literally, we lose the opportunity to reimagine them for our own life circumstances. What could we have taught our children about the spirit of giving, if we had put Santa in the context of fable, not fact?
And even deeper: what could we have taught them about the nature of belief itself? Perhaps they would have looked around at their Santa-believing peers and thought, “Wow, I can’t wait until you know the truth.” They might have looked at teachers and ministers and authority figures and thought, “What else is myth?” They might have grown up accepting less and questioning more than they already do.
Ultimately, growing up is painful.
My daughter thought that by rejecting the truth, she could delay or even prevent her evolution into adulthood.
Ironically, in her teens she became obsessed with learning magic tricks, and would practice on family members. I was always the one who didn’t want to know how she did it. I loved believing that the magic was real. It felt like a respite from adulthood.
Isn’t that what we as a citizenry have done? Habitually turned a blind eye to the continual depravities of our governments because it’s just not fun to think about Abu Ghraib, or the complete absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction, or Guantanamo? Let’s watch Netflix instead!
I did that. I didn’t want to dig into the news to understand what the U.S. was doing in other countries. I thought it would be too depressing, too much “staring into the void.” Besides, I had other priorities. Life was too short to waste! YOLO!
How many of us are doing that now?
In the last two years, all that has changed. I’ll save that journey for another essay, but suffice it to say, I’m now an advocate for taking the time to seek the truth, and then looking unflinchingly to see it for what it really is. It has been excruciating at times, and there have been moments when, like my daughter, I wanted to return to the soothing bliss of ignorance.
But I don’t believe in magic tricks anymore. Or Santa Claus. I believe in the magic of truth to set me, and all the rest of us, free.