06 December 2010

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief

The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said  in 1817 that reading required a "willing suspension of disbelief" from the reader. In other words, the reader must voluntarily and consciously agree to believe the author, no matter how fantastical the plot or unlikely the outcome.

This willing suspension of disbelief--this voluntary pretending--allows us, as adults, to experience the world the way a child does. You see, children start out believing in the impossible. They believe the world is good, and wonderful, and that magic lurks around every corner. But children are in a hurry to be adults. They quickly become jaded and caustic. Teens, especially, are eager to be more "grown up." They don't realize that in growing up, they're sacrificing the most precious gift they're born with: the gift of belief. An easy ability to believe, to hope, and to have faith. The ability to get totally and unabashedly excited about something.

Of course, we adults still do this. We get excited and sometimes, we too can barely contain ourselves. Case in point: this past June, while in New York City, my husband and I went to see Green Day's American Idiot on Broadway. Ostensibly we went because we are Green Day fans. But let's not pretend. I bought tickets because John Gallagher, Jr (who I stubbornly maintain will fall head-over-heals in love with me if/when we meet in the future) was the star of the show..and I may have a teensy (gigantic) crush on him. And as the curtain went up in the St. James Theater and I saw my favorite actor/future second husband sitting center stage, I could barely contain my glee.I quite literally bounced in my seat while poking my current husband in the arm, (quietly) squealing "There he is! There he is!" (something my wonderful current husband tolerated gracefully). I was a child on Christmas morning.

Yes, I still experience moments of sheer, childish joy, but as any adult can tell you, they grow fewer and farther between as we grow older. Our excitement may be something we experience, but it's rarely something we share. We aware of the skepticism and scrutiny such childish joy can bring. So we hide it. Other than weddings and births, there are precious few things we adults can truly lose our heads over.

And maybe that's why I love this season so much. Because despite the cold, and dark, and snow, and ice, it's the one time of year we get to stop acting "too cool" and get truly, deeply, magically excited about something. For one short month, we get to be kids. We get to pretend magic exists and deny that we ever grew up. Christmas is simply one big Never Never Land.

There is a reason the Catholic Church, way back when, decided to plop the celebration of Christ's birth (which was in spring, let's be clear) in the middle of the darkest part of the year. Because in our darkest days, we need reminding that there is light and goodness in the world. We need reminding that hope can triumph over despair, and salvation--however you define that--can and will come to you at the blackest hour. It's a symbolic reminder that even when things look their worst, hope, light, and love can be found.

If that doesn't require a child-like sense of faith, I don't know what does.

It is too easy as adults to lose ourselves in the bleak reality of the world. But despite all that grimness, the truth is, the world remains a beautiful, awe-inspiring place. There is pain and sorrow, but Christmas--brightly lit trees shining through the dark, quiet snow-filled nights--reminds us that always, always something can illuminate that darkness.  We believe in miracles, Santa, and the innate goodness of human beings. We have faith again, in our world and in each other. It is a true "willing suspension of disbelief." We pretend that anything is possible, and in so pretending, we ensure that anything is possible.

Even my second marriage to John Gallagher, Jr.

Happy Holidays.