It was bittersweet to help Andrew prepare for Santa’s arrival this Christmas Eve. I know this will be the last year he maintains any belief in Santa. He’s in a classroom that combines first, second, and third graders, and I’m pretty sure that those cynical, jaded 9-year olds clued him in on the unlikelihood of Santa’s existence. What are the odds that a portly, white-bearded dude from the North Pole somehow magically knows your inner desires for toys and games; manufactures or procures your Razor Spark Scooter or Lego Hogwarts Castle set; loads all this loot onto a sleigh, which is pulled by a team of flying reindeer; arrives at your house—and somehow simultaneously at all the houses of sleeping children in your time zone; and then slithers down your chimney to sneak into your living room to nibble on the cookies you’ve left him, to write a response to your note, to carefully stuff your stocking, and to leave gifts for you?
I knew his innocent belief in all things magical was waning when, a few months ago, he scrutinized the note the Tooth Fairy left along with $3 under his pillow and proclaimed to his Grandma, “My mom wrote that note.” Fortunately, Grandma could swear to him that I didn’t write that note. My right-handed mother could be sure because she had written the note (at my request) with her left hand.
I’ve been expecting Andrew to ask me whether the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus are real. More accurately, I’ve been dreading this conversation. Not because I don’t want to tell him the truth, but because this particular conversation marks the end of a sweet innocence and the loss of faith in the possibility that magic can happen to everyone. I certainly don’t want to stunt my son’s intellectual or emotional development. It just makes me sad that he is growing up so quickly. And I feel like I missed too much of his baby and toddler years to sarcoidosis.
When I’m able to scrape away the thick layer of sadness that bubbles to the surface when I think about Andrew letting go of Santa Claus, I can see that the broader topic—of maintaining or losing faith—is especially relevant to me right now in other ways. To start with, a close friend has broken my trust. The whos and hows and whys of the matter aren’t that interesting to anyone but me. We’ve all gone through the painful process of recognizing that our idea of someone wasn’t real, after all. Losing faith in my friend felt a lot like I had torn off lustrous and shiny wrapping paper to find nothing more an empty box. What is left of a relationship when trust is broken? I’m not sure.
This is a season of illusion. We’re all temped and cajoled into the belief that we can manifest our love in material items. But can we really short-circuit the hard work of loving one another by going on a shopping spree? Several times in the run-up to Christmas, I caught myself about to buy Andrew a too-expensive present. When I scratched at the shiny surface of my consumer frenzy, I found noble emotions underneath. I really do love Andrew, and I really do feel like I’ve failed him by being sick for his entire life. Yet would a $300 Lego set convince him of my good intentions and my bottomless love? No. It feels to me like our trappings of Christmas teeter on a very fine line between magic and illusion. What separates the innocence of a child believing in the magic of Santa Claus from our adult magical thinking that a gift can stand in for or even replace love?
The trust that sustains my relationships feels as tenuous as that imaginary line between hopeful possibility and crass consumerism. Now that my trust is broken, it feels like finding my way back to innocent faith in another is as likely to happen as reindeer flying across the sky. Yet I can also see clearly how necessary this trust is. Without a bountiful supply of faith in others, it is impossible to do anything.
Too, no matter how reluctant I was to trust anyone at that moment, I had no choice but to put my life wholly in others’ hands when I had the surgery to implant a defibrillator/pacemaker. It was terrifying, as anyone who has undergone major surgery knows all too well. I had to trust that my sarcoidosis specialist was right in recommending I get the device. I had to trust the anesthesiologist to ferry me safely to and from unconsciousness. I had to trust the surgeon to cut precisely into my skin and muscle. I had to trust the hospital’s cleaning staff to keep germs out of the operating room. I had to trust Boston Scientific to manufacture a safe device that won’t malfunction once it’s grown into my heart. I had to trust my own body to heal after the surgery and to integrate this chunk of hardware into my being. Maintaining faith in all these people—even the ones I couldn’t see—who controlled my well-being, took a willing suspension of my doubts that was akin to Andrew choosing to override his inner skeptic and believe in Santa Claus this year.
This deliberate deciding to believe in another—even when all evidence points to being a cynical skeptic—isn’t easy. It feels like stepping off a precipice and believing that unseen hands will catch me. But is there any other way to live?
I think I might talk to Andrew soon about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy—even if he doesn’t ask me if they are real. I want him to know that “reality” is multi-dimensional. No, a bearded fat man in a red suit doesn’t scamper down our chimney every year. But the magic of waking up and finding excitement on Christmas morning is real. I want him to know that magic is possible, that we can leap from our routine skepticism into radical hope.
Happy New Year. May we all find new ways to trust and to believe.