It’s Christmas Eve and we’ve just put our almost-three-year-old boys to bed, with stockings duly hung and promises of a supernatural visitor in the night. This is the first year the boys have been old enough to benefit from the fraud and so I, like millions of parents before me, have happily contributed to one of the most successful and benign conspiracies in human history.
I say benign knowing full well not everybody sees it that way (coca cola, consumerism, cholesterol, choose your objection) and indeed I’ve even heard parents wondering whether it’s okay to deceive their children. For me, as for most people, it was no difficult decision. Young children naturally inhabit the twilight world between fact and imagination. They are too busy decoding the crude rules of existence to yet bother with the sharper details of which patterns pertain to the real and which to the invented. In the world of my boys, a couch morphs effortlessly into a fire engine, a stick into a microphone, a fly swat into a guitar and a cardboard box into, well pretty much anything. And for exactly the same reason that I’m not about to say ‘don’t be silly, you’re singing into a toothbrush’, I’m not about to object to the Santa construction.
Nevertheless, it does make me think about the interesting journey ahead of them, as they in time must confront the various tricks involved in making sense of their confusing existence.
In time they will learn that yes, sometimes people will lie to them, for the widest variety of reasons they might imagine, and yet, in order to get anywhere, they will also need to learn to trust most people, most of the time.
They will learn that often their instincts are useful guides, but occasionally the things that feel most true are nonsense: already, I watch the way they recoil with fear at the sight of a spider web, while they will sit blithely in the back seat of a car and watch the landscape melt past at a hundred kilometres per hour. (Are they crazy? A ton and a half of metal moving at a hundred kilometres and hour? Do they have no sense of kinetic energy involved? Well actually, no.)
They will learn that the people who have been their guides through the early years of questioning and wonder will become increasingly useless fountains of knowledge as their questions becomes more sophisticated. Indeed, they will find that most of the time the honest answer to their most interesting questions will be, ‘we simply don’t know.’
They will discover that even the things that seem most rock solid are best thought of as only probably true, or in many cases, as crude approximations of the thing we currently consider to be probably true. If they listen carefully they will hear that many things that were once considered self-evident are now thought to be loopy, and will infer that some of our own precious foundations are likely to go the same way.
Some people will probably try to tell them that there is no reality, and in the end all we have is what is inside our head, but if I have anything to do with it, whenever they hear this they will think of what would happen if a child ran out in front of a bus, and dismiss this line of thought as dangerous nonsense.
They will observe, I imagine, that the most certain people are most generally the least well informed, and that anybody who uses the line ‘you can’t prove it’ in an argument is a fool (unless it’s a mathematical argument, and how it would please me to see them have some of them).
They will come to accept that hoping something is true has no impact upon it’s ultimate reality, that the notion of hopeful belief is itself unduly hopeful.
They will be embarrassed to find, at various times, that even the beliefs that seem most stupid to them are supported by thoughtful, careful thinkers who are far smarter than they will ever be.
They will puzzle over the passion with which people attach themselves to pictures of the world, in some cases even being prepared to die for narratives that appear impossible to justify. And if they’re anything like me, they’ll be torn by their conflicting responses of horror and admiration.
Maybe, one day, they will have their own children, and wonder if fiction alone is a steady enough platform to support their most cherished values (and if they’re anything like me, they’ll conclude that it is).
And finally, they will find, when they ask, that on the biggest questions of all, their father is a resolute agnostic, that he is most comfortable with profound uncertainty.
* In the new year, I intend to write a series of posts entitled ‘an agnostic talks to his children about God’, that there may be some record of my metaphysical tastes and preferences. Until then, my challenge is to make my children’s Christmas as much about kindness as it is about consumption.