Thursday, June 27, 2013

That I've been carried away promoting a conspiracy theory

I'm sure we've all shaken our heads over weird conspiracy theories at some time. Some of them are well known. When my son, Logan, was studying with Open Access College, his Science teacher always got riled up whenever somebody suggested that the moon landing might have been a conspiracy theory. A student would only have to say, "Surely the atmosphere would have killed them," or "Somebody saw Neil Armstrong going into a fast food joint back then," to set the teacher off, ranting and fuming for ten minutes. The students used to do it on purpose, to postpone their work and enjoy baiting him.

We'd never be part of silly conspiracy theories, right? Just last Christmas Eve, it occurred to me that I was going along with one of the hugest, most well-kept ones ever dreamed up. It was my birthday, and instead of enjoying it with my feet up, I was driving around with an enthusiastic little boy, pretending to look out for a reindeer-drawn sleigh in the sky. Then when we got home, he logged onto a website which was supposed to track its progress. "Santa is only just heading over the equator now and he'll be visiting New Zealand and the eastern states of Australia before he gets to us."

I have to ask myself, why do we buy into all this? Is convincing our kids that something is real only to rip it away even a good idea? Logan gradually grew out of the idea of Santa Claus and Co. but Emma had a rude awakening. Andrew once announced to all his relatives, while she was within earshot, "I wanted to stay in bed but I had to get up and do the Easter Bunny thing." At the moment, Blake seems to have almost wised up, and I'll be relieved, in a way, when he does twig.

Why do we do it anyway? I remember loving the fantasy and fairy-tale quality of the whole thing when I was a kid. I guess I automatically went along with the conspiracy theory because I didn't want to deny my own kids a dose of the 'special magic', but why bother keeping some made-up farce going? There is such a lot I believe is true and legitimate which we can teach our children in good conscience that should make them even more excited.

God's love and care of us, Jesus' Resurrection, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, guardian angels protecting us, the immense spiritual realm of which we only glimpse the tip of the iceberg at times. All that is far more awesome than an old, fat guy in a red suit who owns a magical toy shop in the North Pole. As it is, I've got to wonder, does our promotion of these fables as absolute truth make real truth harder to take on board? Are we doing our kids a disservice instead of a favour?

When they hear true stories of miracles, healings, unmistakeable answers to prayer, angel sightings, near-death-experiences when the curtain between our realm and the next is lifted, the fulfilling of prophetic words and the slotting together of seeming coincidences into a serendipitous God-incidence, beyond all odds, do they shrug their shoulders and relegate it to the same class as Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy and all their cronies? If we stretched the truth over that, might we not be capable of stretching it over these too? That may be a fair question for them to ask.

As I said, Blake, aged 9, is almost through with the Santa Claus myth. He was telling me all the reasons he's beginning to doubt. "How can everyone be asleep in the same district at the same time? If his workshop is in the North Pole, how come some of the presents are clearly marked as coming from particular local shops? Why do I sometimes see the same wrapping paper we've had before?" I'm through with trying to convince him. Maybe it's just that I've had years altogether of going along with this inherited farce, ever since his siblings were small too. I just grinned at him and said, "You're getting suspicious, are you?" The truth is, I'll be relieved when it's all through. Conspiracy theories get hard and irksome to keep up.

One of the least favourite questions I've had to deal with is, "Why did (insert some lucky friend's name) get the (insert some ultra-expensive gift) I wanted, and I asked Santa for it too but he only gave me cheaper stuff? Doesn't he like me as much?" Once, I even heard Andrew joke that Santa may take their parents' pay checks into consideration. Truth be told, I'm not sure I even like having to scrimp and save in December, then having to explain that we're broke while the old fat guy gets the credit for the largesse found beneath the tree. "Mum, I know you get worried about spending too much at Christmas but you don't have to get much for me. You can just let Santa take care of it."

Maybe if I had the chance to do it all over again, I might have done it differently. One thing I'm not going to change is to emphasise all the wonderful things I've listed above which I believe are genuinely true. There are all the great works of fiction too, whose themes are full of the sort of truth we want our children to take on board. We can even tell them the historical factual tale about the real Saint Nick without stretching it to the extent we have. And of course, way above all, is the reason why we celebrate Christmas at all, that Jesus was born for us. How great that we live in a world which is full of such marvellous and awesome truths that we really don't have to make up any extra embellishments.

But I guess we'll still be watching people like Tim Allen and Vince Vaughan each Christmas, hamming it up in movies such as 'The Santa Clause' and 'Fred Claus.'

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A surreal, foreign experience showed me why fiction is important

Sometimes just one moment can change the way we look at things.

An eye-opening experience I had was stopping over at Tokyo Airport on the way to Heathrow, when I was 20 years old. As we walked through the long airport terminal, the only three Anglo-Saxon faces to be seen anywhere belonged to me and my parents. The rest of the vast crowd was comprised of Asian faces, Japanese specifically. There were thousands of pretty girls with glossy, jet-black hair, cute toddlers and smart-looking men. Undoubtedly, a stream of western tourists turn up in that international airport all the time, but at that moment, for as far as I could see, there was just us.

We were getting covert glances and sometimes smiles. Growing up as a fourth or fifth generation Australian in Adelaide, I had carried an unconscious sense that most people were like me. We were the 'common' type. Of course I'd been taught at school that the vast majority of the world was filled with other races, who had different coloured skins and spoke different languages. The dry facts and text book photos obviously hadn't made it sink in. Now, during that long walk with our suitcases through Tokyo Airport, I had my first experience of feeling 'foreign'. The world was a far bigger place than I'd ever imagined.

I sometimes remember my impressions of that day in 1990. It's healthy to think of ourselves from someone else's point of view for a change. I find it a good remedy for remembering that the world doesn't revolve around me. It's wise also to consider how easy it is for individuals to carry a sort of delusion of grandeur and self-importance. Although I am ME to myself, the crucial person in my life's story, I am an OTHER to everyone else on our planet, who are busy being the centre of their own stories. From this perspective, any special sense of entitlement has to be rejected.

It's the same for why fiction is a good medium to read and write. When people ask me why I write it, I've sometimes felt put on the spot, unable to come up with a reasonable sounding answer. I have an inner conviction that it's excellent and important, but a simple, "I've always enjoyed it," seemed a self-indulgent answer and certainly not acceptable. When I remember my impressions in Tokyo that day, I think it's all tied in with the reason why.

Fiction enables us to remove ourselves from our own egos and look at the world from the perspective of others. Studies I've read about have indicated that fiction readers really are higher on a measured empathy scale than non-fiction readers or non-readers. This doesn't surprise me. When we are reading a novel which switches from one character's point of view to that of another, we are filled with new ways of looking at the world. We may begin a story automatically endorsing one person's opinion and rejecting another, but when we read part of the story being told from the opposite point of view, it allows us the experience of entering a head which is totally different from where we might have expected to find ourselves.

It's so easy not to realise that all this is happening when we are simply reading a good story. What a great exercise for helping to understand and broadening our tolerance, even if just a little bit. This is what I often aim to do with characters who don't seem so lovable. In my opinion, being able to see a glimpse of the world from someone else's perpective, even just a flash, is well worth the effort a fiction writer may have to put in to provide this.

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