Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tis the Season

I've got a cold, not a bad one but as I listen to my own voice disappearing slowly I can't help but find its warbling echo amusing. I sound silly and though my head is full and my throat and body ache I can't help but feel like a kid again. I've degenerated into a whiny, sniveling mess who's curled up beneath her comforter sipping a cup of tea and sucking on a cough drop. My husband is a horrible nursemaid, but in fairness I am a horrible patient. I cry when I'm sick, for no apparent reason shedding tears makes me feel better. I want my mommy. It seems appropriate for this time of year to find myself receding back to childlike behaviors and since I'm in full kid mode I'd like Santa back too. I'd like to believe again in a benevolent universe where a jolly, corpulent old man lives to bring magic into our lives. I want a list of who's good and who's bad and I want someone who is fundamentally kind monitoring it. I want villains to fear finding coal in their stockings, to believe in something today the way I once believed that a generous old man who flew around the world every December 24th.

So, how exactly does one find that kind of magic in middle age when you are bombarded daily with a barrage of bills, bad news, and other stressors?  The search itself seems exhausting but even from my perch on the couch I feel certain it must be worth the work. In my house most of the 'magic' of Christmas has faded. We have no 'believers' here and 2011 has been, in some ways, a horrible year. My child struggled to find himself, made mistakes that were painful to watch, I've had a falling out with someone I dearly love, I am about to have surgery and we have been dealing, like many Americans, with financial stresses. These things pale in comparison with what many of our friends have faced this year, one friend has been raising four children as a widow, one has been dealing with the needs of two handicapped children, another faced (and defeated) cancer and the list goes on. Life, it seems, has been anything but fair this year.

So what is there to celebrate? What is there to believe in? Why shouldn't I curl into my couch and enjoy a heaping serving of cynicism with my tea and cough drops? I want to, it's a vice of mine to wallow, but I've learned something over the years. Things are never as bad as they seem.
Thankfully, I learned this lesson early when, in my teens and early twenties, I struggled with an eating disorder. My disorder was, to put it mildly, resistant to treatment. The details of the ten years I spent battling are still difficult to discuss and I admit I gave up more times than I can count during that period. Mostly, I didn't want to stop abusing myself. I had power over food if nothing else. I was good at starving. I loved the feel of my bones protruding through my skin because that made me feel powerful. I could flirt with my own disappearance and then pull back far enough to cheat death. I had been disappointed and I was protesting. Like so many protests, mine turned violent, the violence turned inward instead of outward and that kind of violence is much more difficult to quash. I wonder now if there wasn't some part of me that was refusing to grow up.

Growing up sucks, kids get Santa and bunnies, and they don't worry about salaries or bills, even at twelve I must have known this. For children belief comes easy, of course there is magic in the universe, reindeer fly, elves labor joyously to make toys for children they don't know, altruism is strong enough to get one man to every child's home in just one night. Adults, on the other hand, often argue over the mistreatment of animals, laborers are often overworked and under-compensated, and the existence of altruism is highly questionable in a world were everyone seems to be out for themselves. Still, I can't help it, I believe.

I believe that people are fundamentally good despite the Jerry Sandusky's and the Bernie Madoff's of this world. I think kindness and generosity are gifts given every day in small, often silent, ways. Today my son's car broke down and his cousin came and helped him get it towed home. My friend offered to drive me to work next week if I need to loan my son the car. These are little things, silly things maybe but no one had to help us, they chose to. No one really owes anyone else those small gestures but they do it anyway. These things are, in my view, simple magic.

What of the larger magic? The thing that will save us all from ourselves? All week I've been teaching Crime and Punishment to my seniors, we've been talking about the advantages and dangers of intellectualism. The benefits and pitfalls of philosophies like Nietzsche's Uberman theory. How far, exactly, should be follow our own ideologies? How much can we trust logic? In theory the concept of an intellectual superman is appealing, logical, even comforting. The precept that if one person's death can benefit thousands then it is rational, even required, that that person be sacrificed makes a kind of mathematical sense. If, somewhere out there, there are these exceptional individuals whose intellectual capacity distinguishes them from the masses, can't they become our new Santas? Can't they give us the gift of a more advanced peace? A more enlightened understanding? Lead the way like the protagonist of Dostoevsky's novel is hoping to do? Isn't intelligence a sort of magic?

Trouble is human intelligence is hopelessly tied to human emotion. Do we really want it any other way? Do we want to make completely rational decisions? In the opening scene of the movie I, Robot Will Smith plays a character whose car is submerged in water.In the passenger seat is a small child. The robot, having calculated the mathematical likelihoods of survival of the two victims, saves the adult because it is the logical thing to do. Thus begins the character's essential mistrust of logic that is devoid of emotion.

Raskolnikov suffers a similar conundrum, try as he might to separate himself from emotion, it keeps creeping in on him. Drunkards and usurers are bad for society. Poverty dehumanizes, someone must step in to save the peasants from their own simplicity. Who better than a young intellectual with a plan? Ah, but the plan falls apart quickly when the protagonist cannot overcome his own humanity. He is, inherently an emotional creature and despite his best efforts, he fails to separate emotion and logic. Of course Dostoevsky had an agenda, I suppose we all do but he tackles Hegel, Nietzsche and other philosophers admirably and wrestles a respectable match.

So, why can't I have my Santa back? Why can't I say someone sold me a bill of goods when they told me to abandon magical thinking? Someone stole Santa, and maybe it was me. I wanted to grow up. I love thinking about things, I want to know as much as I can in the short time I'm on this planet but I can't help but realize, especially at this time of year that without some magic, some belief in the preposterous, I'll shrink somehow. So I'm going to embrace mystery, I'm going to believe. It doesn't matter if I believe in Santa, Buddha, God, or just the fundamental magic of having the ability to feel emotions, as long as I find something to believe in, my life will be enhanced. So guess what? I'm going to sit on my couch on December 24th and watch Christmas specials, I'm going to pretend reindeer and a fat guy in a suit are trekking around the world. I'm going to believe in the power of the human spirit to create magic.