“Tell Me Lies! Tell Me Lies! Tell Me Sweet Santa Lies!”

America is a diverse nation and only the naive person believes that almost all Americans share a ton of values in common.  However, one of the very few things that almost all American adults have agreed to do is to lie to young children about Santa.

I do not mean to imply that almost all American adults approve of lying to young children about Santa.   Many of us don’t.  Yet, rather than become pariahs in our own homes or communities, we go along with the social demand that young children should be lied to about Santa.

For instance, this morning, Doug at Groping the Elephant, wrote about a news anchor, Robin Robinson, who was pressured by public outrage to apologize for having announced during a broadcast that there was no Santa Claus.    Regardless of Ms. Robinson’s own views on the subject, it’s unlikely she’ll anytime soon try publicly debunking the myth again.

A surprising lot can be said about the custom of lying about Santa.  Obviously, one can argue over whether it is morally right or wrong.  But beyond that, one might speculate why such a hugely diverse nation is nearly unanimous in its support for the custom.  One might ask whether figuring out that we have been lied to by our community is a rite of passage — one of the very few rites of passage left that nearly everyone goes through.  One might ponder why no one has figured out a way to commercialize lying to Santa in a nation that seems able to commercialize everything else.  Indeed, the ways of discussing lying about Santa might seem endless.

I can’t recall at what age I figured out there was no Santa, but I can recall what it taught me.  That is, I can still even to this day recall marveling over the discovery that I had believed something — not because I thought it was true (I had suspicions it wasn’t true even before I confirmed it wasn’t true) — but because I so deeply desired it to be true.

That was an important life lesson for me.  Over the years, I have benefited again and again from knowing that I am capable of believing something to be true simply because I want it to be true.

So, what lessons, if any, did you yourself learn upon discovering that your community lied to you about Santa?  Were any of the lessons you learned especially useful to you?   Did any of them stick with you?

“A Liberated Chicks Take Shit From No One Moment” (Guest Post)

Please Note:  The following is a guest post from S. W. Atwell.   — Paul Sunstone

I recently had a Liberated-Chicks-Take-Shit-From-No-One moment.  It happened on one of our busier downtown thoroughfares.

There I was, blatantly walking about without my burkah, when I only added to my insolence by reflexively smiling at a man as he approached me walking in the opposite direction.  It was my closed-mouth friendly, urban midwestern smile. He told me I had a nice smile.

In a move worthy of Salome herself, I gave him my “Aren’t you nice, and thank you for saying so!” smile.  That’s the bold smile, the one where I show actual teeth.

Then, he added: “You just wanna be with me right this moment, don’t you?  Yeah, you just can’t stop yourself from wanting to climb all over me right here and now and–”

Whereupon I interrupted him by asking, “If I buy you a gun, will you promise to shoot yourself with it?”

© S. W. Atwell 2011

The Challenge of Uncertainty

I think to varying degrees, many of us have been taught the challenge is to arrive at a firm opinion or belief.  And, of course, it helps if that’s also a true belief.

At times, it seems as if we think the human mind somehow finds it difficult to harbor a conviction.  Yet, after seven or eight years of reading debates and discussions posted on popular internet forums,  I suspect most of us might be too certain of our beliefs and opinions.

That is, it does not seem we humans have as much of a problem being certain as we have a problem being uncertain.

At the root of this problem I think is the human desire for permanence.  That desire manifests itself in many ways, but one way seems to be how it manifests itself as a fetish for convictions.  I think the sense is, if our beliefs last, so do we.

It might be that the real challenge is — not to have a firm opinion or belief — but to be open to learning something new.

Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

Second-Hand Truths

“My point is, an enlightened person will overcome suffering because suffering is just a state of mind”, Henry told me.

“How do you know that?”, I asked.

Henry and I go back awhile.  He was one of the first people I met when I came to Colorado some years ago.  And his real name is so distinctive that I am calling him “Henry” here to preserve his privacy.

Although raised a Christian, Henry is today religiously eclectic.  He borrows things from several religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, and Buddhism.   Yesterday, I managed to mildly irritate him during a phone conversation by asking him how he knew somethings to be true.

“The Buddha himself said suffering is just a state of mind, and he said that an enlightened person will overcome it”,  Henry said.  “And don’t ask me how the Buddha knew — he certainly knew more than you do.”

“The Buddha also said you should look for yourself”, I reminded Henry, “and to not rely upon his or anyone else’s words for the truth.”

Rightly or wrongly, I suspected Henry was missing the point.  And I further suspected that he might be missing the point because he was stuck in taking the Buddhist scriptures he was reading on faith.

East and West

It seems to me there is a sense in which the West and the Middle East expect you to take important religious truths on faith, while the East expects you to test such things for yourself.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that in practice.  There are different attitudes towards teachers, for instance.  Westerners often challenge their teachers to defend their views.  Easterners tend to take it for granted their teachers are right.  But even with those qualifications and others, the West seems more prone to taking religious truths on faith than the East.

Why is that?

It seems the most important religious truths of the West are truths that you have no choice but to accept on faith — if you are going to accept them at all.   For instance: There is no conclusive evidence for the notion that Jesus was Christ, nor any conclusive evidence for the notion that Mohammed was the last of the prophets.  These are not truths that can be established by observation.

In contrast, it seems the most important Eastern truths can be established by experimentation and observation.  Henry’s notion that an enlightened person will overcome suffering can be tested.  That is, in theory at least, Henry could become enlightened, then observe whether or not he suffers.

Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

Many Westerners seem to bring to Eastern scriptures the faith they were taught to have in Western scriptures.   Perhaps they never heard the Zen expression, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

So far as I can guess, there might be at least three reasons why the East often insists on killing the Buddha — that is, on not blindly following anyone, even the Buddha.

First, what works for the Buddha might not work for you.  Humans are a diverse species.  While humans do have a lot in common, there are enough differences between individuals that it’s pretty safe to say what works for some of us might not work for all of us.  You see that principle in such mundane things as the various shapes of the human nose.  There are no two humans, other than identical twins, with exactly the same shape of nose.  Yet, almost all human noses are recognizably human.   The psychology upon which our spirituality is based is probably just as diverse as our noses.  Why else are there no “Sixteen Sure Steps to Enlightenment” that can be successfully repeated by everyone who is interested?

Second, you are not really looking unless you are looking for yourself.  At the very best, scriptures and the sayings of your teachers are guides or maps.  Even when they are accurate, if you look no further than the scriptures and sayings, you are not really looking.  You have not really looked at Paris if all you have looked at are maps of Paris.  You are not really looking at, say, suffering if you do not look beyond what is said about suffering.

Third, scriptures and teachings can remove the urgency to change.  Basically, scriptures and teachings label things.  And what we label loses some of its vitality.  Often enough, once you have labeled a headache a “headache”, you no longer feel quite the same urgency to deal with it as before.

Fourth, we become attached to scriptures and teachings.  It is quite easy to become attached to scriptures and teachings.  But all attachments — very much including our attachments to ideas — seem to be impediments to realization.  If that’s the case, then attachments to scriptures and teachings are no less impediments to realization than are attachments to cars or houses.

 ◄A Good Habit

I’m no expert on East and West, so it’s just my impression that the East is more likely than the West to encourage you to test for yourself the truth or falsity of any scripture or teaching.  But whether or not the East insists on testing them for yourself, it strikes me as a good habit to be in.  “Killing the Buddha” is not just good advice.  It is probably necessary if you are really going to get anywhere in these matters.

Marriage Through a Child’s Eyes (Guest Post)

In the following post, guest author S. W. Atwell writes about her young daughter’s surprisingly sophisticated views of marriage.  — Paul Sunstone

My daughter was seven when she decided that having a Canadian mother meant that she was a “Canadian American” and began noting differences between the United States and Canada.   Mimi has Asperger Syndrome, which causes her to obsess about odd little areas of interest.

AS also makes Mimi prone to utter her thoughts with disarming frankness.  She sometimes at a disadvantage when it comes to interpreting new situations.  That is why I wondered what Mimi would make of it the evening she walked into the living room, where I was watching a commitment ceremony for two women characters in a favorite sitcom.

Mimi stared at the television, taking in the wedding finery as she moved her stare from the center of the screen to the top of the screen, from the top of the screen back to the bottom.

“Mother,” she stated, hitting each consonant with a precision that nearly pulled the syllables of her words apart.  “There are two ladies getting married on the television.”  (“There are two lay-ties ge-ting married on the telee-vision”).

Her face still and concentrated, she resumed scanning the screen.  Then, her eyes widened, she pressed the palms of her hands together and bobbed forward slightly with the delight of discovery.  “Oooh.  This wedding must be in Canada!”

She asked no questions, nor offered any comments.  She had categorized the phenomenon and that was all that mattered.

That was the beginning.  Weeks later, Mimi called me into her bedroom.  “Come here, Mother!  Two Canadian girls are planning a wedding!”

Indeed, Barbie of Swan Lake was about to marry Barbie with the Dolly Parton hair and the peacock blue eye shadow.  It made me wonder if intercultural marriage could go too far.

Then came the evening when I lost patience with Mimi for repeatedly interrupting my housework. “Mimi!  Why do you keep coming to me for help with something new every two minutes?”

But rhetoric falls flat when directed at the literal-minded.  “Because, Mother, you are my mother and you are supposed to help me.”

“Yes, sweetheart, I realize that, but right now I am so tired and overworked that I feel like I need a mother to come over and help me.”

“But Mother, your mother lives in Canada.”

“Yes, dear, I know–”

“And she has a job and cannot come here.”

“Pussy Cat, I understand this–”

“And my daddy says she does not like you anyway.”

“Oh my!”

“And anyway, now that your father is dead, your mother could get married again.  And if she is in Canada, she could marry a lady.  And that lady would be your step-mother.  And maybe she would love you and come here to help you.”

I was speechless.

It took me a long time to understand that something was working in my daughter beyond a fascination with differences between American and Canadian culture.  It was broader than the differences and similarities between gay and straight marriage.  Mimi had the makings of small social engineer and marriage was her engineering media.  She knew about relatives who were unhappy about the marriage between her Jewish mother and her Christian father.  I assured Mimi that love was the important thing and it was nobody else’s business if people came from different religions or had different skin colors.

Mimi was usually the second arrival at day camp that summer, the first being a four year old biracial boy.  Perhaps Mimi considered the little guy “black,” as Americans do when a person’s ancestry is partially African.  In any event, Mimi’s eyes lit up the morning he and his very Nordic mother arrived a few minutes after we did.

“Wow!” she told the little boy.  “Your parents are different colors, but they still got married!  That is so good!  Did you know nobody is supposed to tell other people not to get married because they are different colors so long as they love each other?”

The boy was speechless.  His mother held her laughter and gave me a “thumbs up” sign as she walked out the door.

As proud as I was of Mimi’s tolerance, you can only imagine my chagrin the day I learned she had mocked another camper because of his religion.

“Over religion?”  I spluttered.  “But Mimi, of all children, should know better than that!  Her father and I are of different religions!”

“That seems to be the problem,” explained the camp director.  “Mimi made fun of the boy because his family only has one religion and hers has two.”

I read Mimi the riot act, ending with an order that she apologize to the other child immediately.

“I am sorry,” Mimi began, “for making you cry because I said it was better to have two religions in your family instead of one.”

Then, leaning in confidentially and dropping her voice to a whisper, “But do not worry!  Maybe someday your parents will get a divorce and one of them will get married again to somebody who has a different religion and then your family will also have two religions!”

That was when I finally understood that Mimi considered marriage the panacea for all social conflicts.

Liberal she might be, but she would agree with conservatives any day of the week that marriage is the basis of American society.  Perhaps one day she will decree that Democrats and Republicans must intermarry.  Mimi may be generations removed from the shtetl, but never mind.  She is truly a matchmaker for the twenty-first century.

© S.W. Atwell, 2011

The Incompetence of Elite Classes

An argument made against democracy is that the people are incompetent to govern themselves.  That may be true.  But history shows the same is most likely true of the elites.

The Soviet Union certainly wasn’t a well run country.  Nor was Mussolini’s Italy — it was a lie the trains ran on time.  It took the Third Reich’s elites about ten years to reduce their nation to rubble.  And we’ve just been offered evidence that government by elite Wall Street insiders does not work all that well in the US.

One could go on and on: Elites down through history seem to be no wiser than anyone else when it comes to government.  The notion that a privileged class is better at governing a people than the people themselves does not seem to have rational support.

Do Men and Women Complete Each Other?

I’ll be up front about this.  I think the notion that men and women complete each other can be pushed too far, even though it does seem to have some truth to it.

In favor of the notion, I can recall some wonderful feelings of completeness I’ve had during sex, and sometimes those feelings reverberated for hours or even a few days afterwards.  So maybe there’s that sense in which men and women might complete each other.

I also recall thinking that my partner’s talents and skills somewhat rounded out my own.  In some cases, she had a strong aptitude for things I wasn’t much inclined towards.  And vice versa.  So there’s another sense in which men and women might complete each other.

Of course, I’m not talking about the seemingly related issues of whether men and women compliment each other or are compatible with each other.  I’m only talking about this one notion of whether they complete each other — of whether they make each other whole.  And I think that can be pushed too far.

For instance, I’ve heard the argument that, because men and women complete each other, men and women cannot be complete or whole in themselves.  To be polite, that argument seems to be based on a naive lack of experience with being complete or whole.

A friend of mine once told me, “If you really need someone else to feel complete, then you are too needy for a relationship in the first place.”  I don’t entirely buy into her radical attitude, but I think it might have some truth to it.  At least, I’ve known some pretty needy people who always seemed to be mentioning how much they required their partner for themselves to feel whole. And the same people were often too jealous or possessive to have a healthy relationship.

Another argument I’ve heard is that, because men and women complete each other, homosexuals cannot.  That seems quite a stretch.

I see no reason why two homosexuals cannot feel the same sort of emotional completion that I have felt at times with my partners.  And I see no reason why they cannot have the same balance of talents and skills that I have at times had with a partner.

The last argument I’ve heard is that men and women complete each other in the sense men are the head of the family and women are their helpmeets.  If that’s how a couple genuinely wants to work things out between them, that’s their business, but I think it pushes it too far to say that only that one arrangement can complete a man or woman.

Besides, what’s there to really differentiate that sort of “completeness” from the working relationship of, say, a male executive and his female secretary?

So, why I think there might be some truth to the notion that men and women can complete each other, I also think that notion can be pushed too far — and often enough has been pushed too far.

But what do you think?  Am I onto something, or are these just some more of my late night thoughts that I ought to have torpedoed out of the water before they left their berth?