Andrew Fiala

At Christmas, maybe a little wishful thinking is OK

On Christmas Eve, the will to believe takes center stage. Christmas stories hinge upon the crisis of faith of an incredulous child. Belief in the unbelievable empowers Santa and his sleigh.
On Christmas Eve, the will to believe takes center stage. Christmas stories hinge upon the crisis of faith of an incredulous child. Belief in the unbelievable empowers Santa and his sleigh. Associated Press file

Much of life depends upon voluntary suspension of disbelief. We often set truth and reality aside to play in the fields of fantasy.

Perhaps we are too gullible. Fake news floods our screens. We are awash in bunkum and balderdash. Major dictionaries picked “surreal” and “post-truth” as words of the year for 2016.

Science and logic help us distinguish fact from fiction. But this problem is psychological. We enjoy our humbug. Sensational hoaxes are much more fun than reality. And the will to believe provides us with wonder and joy.

In 1897, the New York Sun famously declared, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” The editor – with the fantastic name Frances Pharcellus Church – explained, “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn?

“Of course not,” he said. “But that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.”

Mr. Church concluded that faith, fancy, poetry, love and romance reveal the beauty and glory of the world. These things, like Santa Claus himself, are “real and abiding.”

This inspiring essay would fail a critical-thinking class. Lack of proof is not proof. Wishful thinking does not make things true. Imagined wonders are not real just because we want them to be.

And yet, we do not live by truth alone. We love our illusions. We are fascinated by fables and fantasy. Poetry transports us. Music moves us. The unreal worlds of television, film and literature fill our empty hours.

A life of pure, unadulterated reality would be dismal and dull. The cosmos cares little for our happiness. But this empty universe also contains Christmas.

The miracle of birth cannot be reduced to mere biology. Love, beauty and joy transcend material reality. Generosity and forgiveness can break long cycles of violence and hatred. But these wonders cannot be enjoyed unless we believe in them.

On Christmas Eve, the will to believe takes center stage. Christmas stories hinge upon the crisis of faith of an incredulous child. Belief in the unbelievable empowers Santa and his sleigh. Credulity is the ticket to the Christmas wonderland.

The same is true of art. Music is merely sound and rhythm. Poetry is scribbles on a page. Films are flickering, two-dimensional images. We must allow ourselves to be enchanted by these things. And when we give in to the illusion, we encounter meaning that transcends the material world.

Religion and politics also require suspension of disbelief. Bread and wine are transformed. Flags and insignia are not mere cloth. We encounter the sacred and sublime through a leap of faith.

It is easy to dismiss this as humbug. A cynical Scrooge will complain that love is hormonal, justice is power, and truth is the echo of a lie well told. Critical reason bursts the bubbles of the false and fantastic.

But we do not live by reason alone. Poets and playwrights know this, as do shysters and charlatans. And therein lies a significant problem. Like other artists, the con artist plays upon our credulity. He sells us a pack of lies, which we gladly pay for.

The challenge is to steer a middle course. We need to keep wonder and hope alive. But we also need to keep our hands on our wallets.

There are times when it is appropriate to set reality aside and celebrate the play of the imagination. Christmas is surely one of those times. We sing the songs and tell the tales, weaving a fantasy that glows in the child’s wondering eyes. F.P. Church rightly celebrates “the glad heart of childhood.”

We cannot live every day as if it were Christmas. The adult world includes violence, hatred, stupidity and ignorance. Sober thought, grounded in reality, is the cure for these maladies.

But despair is also a problem. Wonder and hope are often in short supply. And cynicism pinches our hearts.

So yes, Virginia, we need to believe in Santa. Tomorrow we’ll be back to battling bull. But today we play with the fairies, creating a world of generosity and love for our children to enjoy.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: fiala.andrew@gmail.com

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