“Isn’t this enough? Just this world? Just this beautiful, complex wonderfully unfathomable world? How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap, man-made myths and monsters?” ― Tim Minchin.
Christmas is Coming! What can it teach us?.
I was five years old, and my family was staying for Christmas at my grandparents’ farm. Excitable young me was filled with the thrill of having been told that Santa would visit tonight if I was a good boy and went to sleep. All the other children in the family promptly did so, but as the oldest child I decided to be a rebel; instead, I would lie awake in bed until midnight, when I would surely catch Santa as he came down the chimney.
As I lay silently in bed over the next few hours (??), I could hear the adults in subdued conversations across the house slowly becoming quiescent as they each went to bed, until a silence descended that was punctuated only by the ticking of a living room clock and the occasional crackle of embers in a fireplace. I daresay I fell in and out of an erratic sleep…
Later that night, I was apparently awoken by sleigh bells, a collective THUMP THUMP THUMP of reindeer hooves hitting the roof, and then a more sedate and solitary CLUNK… CLUNK… CLUNK… of heavy Arctic-type boots crossing the roof towards the chimney. After a few moments, I heard those same boots imprint themselves on the carpet in front of the fireplace, in the hallway outside my bedroom door, which my parents had left slightly ajar.
I squeezed my eyelids tightly shut, and heard almost imperceptible footsteps as someone entered the room momentarily to ensure that I was asleep. I lay there in my bed, with the blankets tightly pulled up to my chin. Quivering with excitement, even at that young age I knew that I would not likely be fooling anybody by pretending to be asleep. But then I heard the bedroom door squeak almost shut, as the person left the room. A couple minutes later, I heard footsteps across the roof again, and then sleigh bells jingle until they faded into the stillness of the night.
As an adult, nearly sixty years later, do I seriously think that I was visited by Santa Claus on that Christmas Eve 1966 in Bannockburn, Victoria? Of course not. What I do think is that this story probably demonstrates the power of lucid dreaming or hypnagogic hallucinations. Most obviously, though, it also reveals the power of suggestion to impressionable or excitable minds and may help to explain many conspiracy theories and stories of alleged angels, alien visitation, false memories, divine revelation, miracles, or the Mandela Effect.
My close encounter of the Santa kind is a transcendental moment for me because it contains a bitter lesson: it shows that for all our aspirations towards nobility and betterment, our propensity for progress can be inhibited. Our brains are flawed organs and we are susceptible to suggestion or hallucination – or just plain mistakes. Our dreams and visions can be imperfect or mistaken or outright incorrect. Transcendence or transgression, nobility or nonsense – we are capable of them all. This does not mean that we should abandon our quest for betterment or advancement; in fact it makes that quest all the more valuable when we exercise critical thinking, and balance our dreams with rationality in order to get something right.
Our search for spirituality should be recognised as a pilgrimage in search of our secular selves, warts and all. Such a revelation is both reassuring and terrifying in its aspiration and its possible outcomes: humans are such a relatively small, insignificant part of the Universe, and yet we contain an immense capacity for nobility and growth within ourselves; we reflect a potentiality that is cosmic in its implications. We do not need a stone age deity or a new age mystic to tell us that we are filled with potential; we glimpse that capability within ourselves whenever we experience the everyday or glimpse transcendence. What some may call sacred or spiritual, I assert to be secular self-awareness: seeking something deep or meaningful, and finding profound awe and splendour in our human search.
© 2022 Geoff Allshorn