Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Christmas: The Benevolent Delusion

Off the bat just to be clear, I love Christmas. This is not a disparaging or cynical blog about it. The notion of calling it a benevolent delusion is simply because, over the years, my beliefs have evolved (much as everyone’s should) and though my love of Christmas will always be tremendous I see the holidays a little differently each year. And as I re-watch many of my favorite Christmas movies each season I often take new meaning from them, despite having seen those dozens of times. If there’s spoilers in here for some of you I do apologize. But I assume you’ve seen the film I’ll be focusing on, the classic 1947 Miracle on 34th Street. We’ll also be focusing mostly on the American representation of both Christmas and Santa Claus since they are and can be vastly different between countries. There may be historical and contextual mention of Saint Nick in his various forms and the celebration of the holiday across the centuries and continents but since this is a fairly personal study done for myself it all ties back to what I and many of my peers know best and what we grew up with, Christmas in the States.

My views on this beautiful film have shifted over the years. As a child, a young adult, and even until 3 or 4 years ago, I always came to the inevitable conclusion that Kris, the delightful old man in the film, WAS in fact the real Santa Claus. His lawyer and friend Mr. Gailey even proves it in court and according to US Law to boot! Of course along the way millions of people share that idea including the fairly disillusioned Mrs. Doris Walker and her impressionable yet open minded daughter Susan. But something that struck me recently, as every year there always remains that shred of doubt, is the idea that it absolutely does not matter. So long as no one gets hurt, what difference does it make whether or not the man is or is not the real Santa Claus.

Perhaps Kris, from the Brooks Maplewood Home for the Aged, really is the big man himself. Perhaps, a bit like a western hero, he wanders into different towns each year like a ghost, arriving to change its populations for the better before disappearing off into the sunset (or the snow in this case). He flies under the radar in order to better understand the people he loves and why the human race is so deserving of gifts each and every year despite some of those who seek to bring him down.

But on the flip side, perhaps he really is an elderly man who suffers from a very powerful delusion, one in which people have conceded to and allowed him to double down on precisely because it’s harmless and benevolent. Whoever this man is, whether or not his birth name is Kris Kringle or John Smith, he is a kind and loving man who suffered, at some point, from a break in his personality. And the new personality that resulted is Santa Claus, the most positive possible outcome. Dr. Pierce, from the Brooks home, in a brief scene even acknowledges that he had a feeling they’d be asking questions about Kris soon. But Kris’ delusions are not harmful to himself or his peers, rather he only wants to help people. “He has no latent maniacal tendencies.”

And so Kris’ character traits follow suit in that he is kind, loving, considerate, giving, a good listener, and most of all a person who exists outside the norm of what society expects of him. And that last trait is what inherently causes a schism in the public view of him. Is he or is he not Santa Claus? And that concept is where this writing is basing its title. Christmas is a benevolent delusion. The real and the fake aside, what Christmas is to us in December 2015 is hardly the sum of its historical parts.

To any common sense possessing adult there is no such thing as Santa Claus, at least not in the modern Coca Cola-esque depiction of him. It’s a story we tell our children for myriad reasons, the foremost of which is to help them behave by threatening the absence of presents and the presence of coal in their stead. However, Saint Nicholas (or Nikolaos in his original Greek) was a real 4th century bishop, and later named Saint, who had a reputation for secret gift giving. (His history as a real man is quite extensive so I encourage you to do some research for those interested.) Obviously this aspect of his personality, among a few others, contributes to the modern notion of the American Santa Claus.

Christmas is overall an incredibly complex and strange holiday. Historically many of the traditions we practice today either in the States or overseas are the result of the inevitable change that occurs in our cultures. For instance in the 17th Century in many places cross dressing between couples was a Christmas tradition. As was wassailing. What is now seen as the delightful spirited holiday beverage or sometimes as singing door to door, wassailing was once a tradition practiced at Christmas time when the rich or middle class would be obligated to allow the poor, or “wassailers”, many of them young aggressive men and underage boys, into their homes and provide them food and drink. If they were refused they might vandalize the home or practice a number of tricks to taunt the homeowners and families. The lyrics, “now bring us some figgy pudding…we won’t go until we got some” harkens back to this. So traditionally wassailing was an incredibly drunken and oftentimes violent tradition that many people dreaded and hated. Christmas, therefore, was not always cause for merriment and good will but cause for contempt and fear.

Many countries, the pilgrims included (the ones who celebrated the first Thanksgiving), outlawed it. It was illegal to celebrate something that had nothing to do with their spirituality but had more to do with public drunkenness and gross misconduct. It also got in the way of being productive. William Bradford, probably the most notable Pilgrim of those who landed on Plymouth rock in 1621, found 3 men celebrating Christmas by taking the day off work. He ordered them back to work otherwise they would face penalty.

So the easy, breezy way in which we see Christmas (both presently and classically) is the furthest from the holiday’s nearly 2,000 year history. But my goal is not to set fire to the good ol’ American Christmas by dropping casual historical notes and wagging my finger, quite the opposite in fact. As time has gone on the holiday has become representative of many things. Sure materialism and black Friday shopping may be among them, but so is the desire to spread peace on earth and good will toward humankind. And that is something that has existed since the beginning of the human race.

The internet and our infinite connectivity and access to any and all information we desire has made it very easy for us to only see the dark side of the holidays, to see people “for what they really are”. The quotes meaning that I know many folks who believe that at our core we are a sick species, a bit of a plague really, that exists only to consume and not to contribute, and is, over time, systematically destroying itself by emphasizing self-importance, money, taking and receiving, purposefully remaining ignorant and prejudiced, and nurturing a lust for guns and subsequently war.

But I think that’s all hogwash. And I think that’s the kind of thing that Kris in Miracle on 34th Street looks to make us aware of. Doris (Mrs. Walker) is, by 1947’s standards, representative of the cultural mindset that it’s more important we not believe in “fairy tales” because they are more harmful than the truth. And the truth is plain and simple. There is no Santa and people are simply good or bad and that’s the end of it. Arguing the notions of faith and spirituality and belief is childish nonsense because it isn’t tangible. But in a beautiful moment, Mr. Gailey points out:

“Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see it’s not just Kris that’s on trial? It’s everything he stands for. Its kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.”

Christmas is presently (and even 68 years ago) a time in which believing in things that are not classified as common sense is okay to do. For children it’s okay to believe in Santa. Even if we approach it from a biblical perspective as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, that kind of faith requires much the same. Historically we know there was a man, a great rabbi, who inspired the Jesus we believe in today. But to make the argument that his birth, life, death, and resurrection occurred exactly the way the bible says it did and exactly the way we celebrate and believe today is highly unlikely. (And let’s not forget I myself am Christian, although a very different kind of Christian.) To many I’ve just uttered a very blasphemous statement. But history has proved that Christmas traditions have so evolved over the centuries that to say it was always about peace, love and understanding is equally blasphemous. Sometimes people respect history only and do not embrace the spirit. Sometimes people focus only on the spirit and turn a blind eye to history. But Christmas, and many other holidays, are the in between frame of mind. We sometimes give more credit to intangibles and sometimes more credit to common sense when at the end of the day it should be an endeavor to find a balance between the two.

“Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind. And that’s what’s been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, maybe I can do something about it.”

Kris’ quote above encapsulates both his character and the importance of allowing and encouraging a benevolent delusion. What we believe in, in 2015 that is supposedly based upon history or actual events is a far cry from “the truth”. And that “truth” is something we will never know with 100% certainty. Without the aid of time travel and being physically present for certain events, the resulting belief based on those events is stood up on a fair amount of supposition. But what rings true for us is what we feel in our hearts. Why else would the notion of peace on earth and good will toward humankind remain so prevalent for thousands of years?

And so we the word delusion becomes almost as a representation for “belief”, believing in things when common sense tells you not to. But as Kris’ first doctor points out, some delusions are harmless and are in fact helpful to those who believe in them and the people who are affected by their delusions. Once the delusion becomes harmful, then it becomes something dangerous. We see this in both strictly religious groups and those who are not, whose definition of what things are “supposed to be” is incredibly rigid and unwavering. “The truth” requires shutting out non-believers and those who disagree with you because they are different from you or believe different things than you.

The grand point is that while to some “Jesus is the reason for the season”, to many others good will and gift giving is their reason. And all of these reasons are okay. Christmas has become an amalgamation of so many different things that to isolate it as one thing is to do it a great disservice. And oftentimes this isolation is backed by incredible hypocrisy. Many of our present day traditions are hijacked from other religions and walks of life, like the pagans. So to steal from history then turn your back on it and say it’s about Jesus is blatant ignorance. Jesus doesn’t care what decorations are in your house, he cares how you decorate your heart. And to the many others who find Christmas as just a day and nothing more with a bit of a Scrooge-like attitude, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s okay not to celebrate. But don’t foster a sort of contempt for those who do like to buy the occasional peppermint mocha or imbibe in a little shopping because that’s all okay too. Because Christmas is not just a day, it is a frame of mind. It is believing in peace on earth and good will toward humankind when all other signs point toward it not. It’s giving from the heart when your peers say it’s simply about materialism. It’s finding rest at the end of a weary year, or finding a little spirit in your glass at the end of a long day. So long as no one gets hurt, what’s the harm in believing in Christmas? What difference does it make whether or not Kris is or is not the real Santa?

And for that matter what’s the harm in believing in the spirit of whatever you want to? Though I’ve always celebrated Christmas I’ve never understood the sort of contempt some believers have for others. The “this is a Christian nation” mentality has hurt us tremendously, because we are not just a Christian nation. We are a melting pop of beautiful differences. And to not respect someone else’s beliefs, especially at Christmas time, is to do the exact opposite of what your belief is about.

Whether it’s celebrating Santa or Yule, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, or Festivus (for the rest of us), these are all frames of mind and all born from humankind’s inherent inclination toward goodness and light. Despite our beliefs and holidays having spun out of history and found a new identity in the 21st century, we should love one another during the holidays and all year through. And if at the end of the day, the year, or our lives we find that there’s little more to this life than the present, then that’s the greatest present of all. If technically speaking peace on earth, goodwill toward humankind, and love for your neighbor is simply a frame of mind, then God bless us everyone for embracing those things. Who are they hurting? Christmas is, after all, simply a benevolent delusion.
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to all!


Friday, September 18, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - My Thoughts (For What They're Worth)

*Note. I originally began the bulk of this review about a week after the book's release. For whatever reason I fell away from it. (Perhaps that's telling of the impact the novel has had on our psyches and it's importance in our libraries?) For whatever reason, I've decided to finish the final few sentences and publish it only because I didn't want my reading to have gone in vain. This is 2015 after all and I need all of social media to know just how hard it was to read an entire book.*

Harper Lee's new (and only second) novel "Go Set a Watchman" has certainly set a lot of fires recently. And rightfully so. If you follow the novel's history it's quite clear it was never meant to be published. Well, Lee never intended it to be published. There's quite an extensive back and forth about her being "trilled" that it is "finally" seeing the light of day but the general consensus is...that isn't true. There are a lot of suits and, ironically, lawyers behind the book being released. After suffering from a stroke years ago, Lee has had trouble seeing and hearing and it has been reported that she'd sign pretty much anything put in front of her and told to sign by people she trusted.

Needless to say, the rocky back and forth about whether the novel should or should not have been published should be laid to rest. It happened. It upsets and excites considerable amounts of people. But the novel is now available and that's the end of that story. Is the world a better place because it is now available to us? No. But is the world now a worse place because it is available? Certainly not. Quite honestly, it isn't a terrible book but it also isn't terribly good. It's content is a bit mired in the same mud that the conversations about the novel are: What do we do with this?

I was never particularly attached to "To Kill a Mockingbird" as so many are. I haven't revisited that story in many, many years but when I saw "Go Set a Watchman" on the shelf at my local supermarket, I stopped dead in my tracks. For whatever reason, to me, there is electricity in the notion that the author of one of the greatest pieces of American literature has published, at 89 years old, her second book. To me it was an opportunity to further explore her psyche, to add more context to her legacy, her craft, and her previous book. And with that book, as with life, context is the key to everything. Many people have a difficult time reading this new novel and remembering when it was written and why it ended up in Lee's scrap pile. Many also find it impossible to set apart the Atticus Finch they know and love from "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the Atticus Finch of "Go Set a Watchman". They are distinctly different and that difference does hit like a punch to the gut. However, "Go Set a Watchman" was written before "To Kill a Mockingbird" and it's clear why she shelved the project. It feels like an early draft and when the back cover is closed it doesn't feel like a complete novel. But it isn't entirely bad. And although the controversy around it stems mainly from Atticus being a racist 72 year old man, it doesn't mean it isn't without its merits. And, to me, it more greatly empowers the current interpretation of "To Kill a Mockingbird".

Essentially, this is the sequel/prequel we didn't ask for. We had a perfect novel, so naturally what do we do with perfect things? Make imperfect sequels and/or reboots. However this "sequel" was already written and, in a sub-textual way, serves as a prequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird" considering it was written prior. I think if there was less pomp and circumstance surrounding its release it would've caused less of a stir. If it were released via the internet as a manuscript or a leak or an unreleased, unpublished draft, we'd all look at it through the prism of "NEAT!" And then the finer details would have us saying, "I can see why she chose not to publish this." Or, "She definitely cut her teeth on this and that more refined style and prose is greater reflected in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'." Also, "I'm glad she chose not to make Atticus a racist."

However it's the race issue that actually, at the end of the day, makes "Go Set a Watchman" important. There are 3 days in your life that are specifically the worst.

3. When you learn there is no Santa Claus.
2. When you outrun your dog.
1. When you learn that your world view mustn't mirror your father's (or parent's).

"Go Set a Watchman" is certainly the third. And those are simply my perspective. I am very close to my Dad. He is absolutely my hero and if I grow up to be even a tenth of the man he is, I'll consider myself a good person. Thankfully he hasn't surprisingly turned out to be a racist. But I vividly recall the moment I realized that he and I disagreed. What the issue was I honestly don't know, but that the moment happened is what's burned into my brain. There's a feeling of helplessness, of being lost, and of knowing that at the exact moment I had become my own man. I was free to act, think, and believe as I pleased. And a great burden comes along with that. I am now responsible for my own actions and decisions. But until that moment everything I learned about life had come from my Dad. As soon as you realize you're free to draw your own conclusions it is both freeing and terrifying.

Scout learns that her father, despite being the pillar of justice and equality she remembers him as being, has a problem with the black population of Maycomb, Alabama and an even greater issue with the NAACP trying to help empower them. To a person living in 2015 (well, to some people living in 2015 I should unfortunately say) race should be a non-issue. So when reading the book through those eyes the initial reaction is a modern one. That people speak about other races in such a way is disgusting and deplorable. I will say, every time the "N word" is used it stings with venom. It feels unclean and inappropriate. There has been some desensitization of it over the years but it's context in "Go Set a Watchman" is vulgar and harsh. And very effective because of that. This is a 60+ year old book. It will not conform to the standards of 2015.

But for all the hate the book has received for turning Atticus, white people's former champion and greatest literary hero, into a racist, the book shines the new (and temporarily positive) spotlight on Scout. She is the hero. And how is that so bad? She was our narrator in "To Kill a Mockingbird" but not necessarily our hero. Here we, heaven forbid, find strength in a female protagonist who stands for something so strongly that she is willing to stand up for it. So strongly that she is willing to sever ties with her father, the great Atticus Finch. Now I know what you're thinking, "But I thought only men could do important things!" And the strength of Scout comes from, you guessed it, her father. The notion of that world crumbling down (seeing your father as God) plays a large role in the book and an important one. But because the book offers up important conversations on race is why, in my opinion, it should be read. It is both enlightening and heartbreaking that a book written over half a century ago still offers relevant commentary on racism and race related issues. That isn't to say that we expect these things to look and feel dated, but that maybe we haven't come as far as we believe we have.

When you turn on the news what do you see? White on black violence, black on black violence, police on black violence. And it never ends. The campaign "Black Lives Matter" is so important because it's true. Perhaps, as a reviewer, I'm writing from Scout's perspective and from that of an idealist. But I assumed that come the year 2015 we'd all be treated equally. But we are not. And it is soul crushing. Racism still runs rampant throughout the world and, sadly, I do not see an end. It's so twisted in some circles that after the devastating shootings in Charleston, SC I saw articles blaming women for men like Dylann Roof. If only we as a society hadn't repressed masculinity and perpetuated the notion that masculinity is "rape culture" then guys like this wouldn't need to do things like this.

The article also mentioned the notion of over medicating kids with mental health issues, but once the preposterous claim that women were ultimately to blame came along I checked out of anything sensible they might'be said (if even by accident).

But finally "Go Set a Watchman" becomes an unfortunate reminder that even the greatest authors are fallible. Or at least shouldn't have every word they've uttered become publish worthy material. However, that fallibility was not one we were meant to witness had Harper Lee been of sound mind when she was approached with the possible publication of her "lost" manuscript. Even towards the book's conclusion Scout makes a half-hearted acknowledgement that (essentially), well of course blacks aren't the same as whites, but still...we shouldn't be treating them so poorly because they're people...kind of?

When it finishes it is much less of a book than it is a manuscript, the very thing we knew it was if we'd done our research, all along. And now we have it and we must find something to do with it, like that fairly thoughtless gift you receive from an absent minded relative at Christmas time and are too embarrassed to return or dispose of for fear of hurting their feelings.

Finally, just like that "gift" it ends up buried on a shelf in between more important volumes or even worse, depending on your reverence for "To Kill a Mockingbird", it finds its way into the closet. Only to be rediscovered and reflected upon poorly when you're cleaning it out due to a move or a spring cleaning. And just like those items it will find its way into a thrift shop or a donation pile, and the cycle perpetuates, and its presence does not fade unless it is destroyed. Sadly Harper Lee did not have the foresight to destroy it decades years ago.