A Christmas Story: Telling the Truth and Breaking the Heart

Was she seven years old? I don’t remember my eldest daughter’s exact age when she asked the question:

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend in school) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the value and importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps could not see just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I could see, however, was that she trusted me. And, in the few moments before I answered, I quickly determined that I could not break that trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still see her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

It was not the last time that I caused pain to someone I love, but I think it was the first time I’d done this to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” tells you something that breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead; something to save this little person from the pain of a message amenable to postponement.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was there a possible Socratic dialogue — an artfully crafted sequence of questions leading her to the same truth and not hurt so much?

Could I have tried to change the subject, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have simply lied? “Of course there is a Santa, Sweetie.” And then left her open to the potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen road for a while, before you realize it isn’t quite as good as you had hoped. Eventually you conclude, “I probably should have taken the other path.”

It really doesn’t matter which road you choose. Nothing in life is perfect. But in your imagination the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind, in the world of abstraction and fantasy, does perfection reside — the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life there is no ideal solution, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. And, of course, we never know what it would have been like to choose the other road at that precise moment. Because, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Meaning that with the passage of time, the river has changed, and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heart breaks, whenever they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain what would have happened had we lived it differently.

Ultimately, one can only accept the terms life allows. The contract we (metaphorically) sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at the moment of our birth allows for no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge I delivered so innocently that day, not just the knowledge about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think about it, it isn’t the knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, it is from the pain of life itself.

But, such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also have the compensations of beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.

Signs of Maturity: What Does It Mean to “Grow Up?”

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“Oh, grow up!” Is there anyone who didn’t hear some version of this humiliating admonition as a kid? Often voiced by another kid, or some chronologically mature person who probably needed to “grow up” himself.

Still, it does raise an important question: what does it mean to grow up? What qualities are present in those people we respect for their maturity?

Although it may not be very humble to do so, let’s start with the quality of humility. And its important to remember that humility is not identical to a lack confidence. Rather, it involves the recognition that in the big picture of the universe, you are a very, very small part. That is to say, unless your name is one that ranks with Einstein or Beethoven, virtually no one will know your name in a hundred years.

As Goethe put it, “Names are like sound and smoke.” They disappear that easily. Humbling indeed. You probably aren’t as important as you think you are.

Which means, of course, that your problems, at least most of them, aren’t that important either. The ability to recognize that most problems are transitory and only temporarily bothersome is another sign of maturity. Now, I’m not talking about brain cancer here, but the more garden-variety ups and downs of life. It sometimes helps weather them to realize that you will care little if anything about those difficulties in five years or even five months.

No, as the saying goes, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s all small stuff.” Or, at least most of it.

Another important quality of being a grown-up, I think, is to have a balance between your head and your heart. We all know people who are way out of balance — those who claim to be imperturbably logical like the Mr. Spock-type Vulcans from Star Trek and others who come apart at the smallest disappointment or frustration, letting their emotions whip them around like a passenger on a “tilt-a-whirl” amusement park ride.

Emotions are there for a reason; the pain of them needs to be attended to, lest you leave your hand on the stove’s burner because nature didn’t inform you to remove that hand. Equally, your head is required to have good judgment and learn from experience, to be cool under fire, and to forge ahead in spite of fear.

In other words, balance is a sign of maturity. Balance of head and heart, work and play, action and contemplation, passion and repose. Socrates said that one should be grateful to old-age that the passions rule us less. But do not live a life without passion, especially when you are young enough to enjoy it! He also said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And so maturity requires some thought about your life, where you’ve been and where you are going, why you have done what you’ve done, what worked and what didn’t, and what lies ahead. It requires an unflinching look in the mirror and the intention to improve.

That means, of course, that being a “grown-up” demands that one has learned something from experience and continues to learn more as experience unfolds. My friend Henry Fogel has said, “I like to make new mistakes!” Meaning, naturally, that there is no point in repeating the same old ones.

Another friend, Rich Adelstein, once told me that he thought that if he were able to figure out the solutions to his then-current problems (he was 50 at the time), he believed that he could simply keep living in the same fashion, using the same solutions to confront whatever was ahead of him. But, he rightly realized, that there would be new problems requiring new solutions, and that the version of himself that faced those new problems would be older and different, and therefore might see things quite a bit differently than the 50-year-old version.

This is an example of maturity, along with a signpost to some of its characteristics, including the need to change, the ability and willingness to be flexible, and the awareness that learning along the way is required. Rich was able to change, and to change his mind about the need to change.

What other qualities might be present in the mature, “grown-up” person? Confidence and the capacity for self-assertion, certainly; the ability to laugh, and to laugh at yourself, not at the expense of others; to take risks and do things that might be hard or embarrassing or scary or frustrating until you master them; to be independent in thought and deed, not to follow the crowd or require a caretaker or someone to make decisions for you; and of course, the capacity for intimacy and love, knowing all the while that embracing others makes you vulnerable to loss.

An additional aspect of wisdom that is usually related to age is having a sense of what is worth fighting for and what is not. There are more than enough battles worth joining in this imperfect world, but one cannot take on all of them without battling 24 hours a day, an exhausting and impossible prospect. And so, maturity requires sufficient knowledge of oneself and the world to make decisions about standing fast or standing aside; holding to principle or being willing to compromise. And accepting that sometimes we will be defeated.

So, yes, being a grown-up means accepting the world on its terms: that loss and disappointment, in causes and in people, are an inevitable part of  life, and that to defend too strongly against them deprives you of the most important and precious things that life has to offer: the thrill and camaraderie of fighting the good fight; and at a more personal level, love, closeness, tenderness, and the acceptance and affection that can only come from unguardedness. To live as if your heart has never been broken and never can be, then, shows both maturity and courage.

Responsibility-taking is another part of being mature, admitting that “yes, it was I who made the mistake.” We all heard the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree a long time ago, and it is entirely about responsibility-taking and honesty. And, as that reference might suggest, honesty is no small part of the “grown-up” life. As the sages say, it simplifies life enormously to be honest. Too many people justify their dishonesty by claiming that they are trying to spare someone else’s feelings. Don’t be deceived. Usually it is much more self-serving than that.

Back to humility, where we started. Part of being mature is having the humility to realize that you too might, “but for the grace of God,” be in someone else’s less advantageous spot, and that therefore they should be judged less harshly for whatever they have done or whatever has happened to them, or perhaps not judged at all.

Maturity means cherishing the quiet moments as much as the thrills. And, most definitely, it means living in the moment, mindful of everything, trying not to get caught up in hoping it were different (even though you might well be justified in doing so); allowing yourself to stay centered where you are in time, rather than to be looking back or forward while the irreplaceable, unrepeatable instant of your life passes by.

Look back too much and you will be caught in the sadness of  time-past and unfulfilled longings and regrets, while missing what is possible in the present. Similarly, living in the future tends to generate anxiety in anticipation of what may come, and deprives you of the same present moment that passes by those who are looking back at yesterday.

Accepting and liking oneself is a part of being a grown-up. Not that you don’t need to or want to change, but to appreciate what is good about yourself and to accept some of the inevitable limitations to which all of us are prone. Not to avoid self-improvement, but to avoid self-denigration.

To be a grown-up means living a principled life, one with a commitment to certain values, and to put those values to work, not just in words, but in deeds. As the AA crowd likes to say, “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.” And those principles, those values, must be informed by the fact that we are all mortal, all in-transit, but that the planet and the human race are here (we hope) for the long haul. We are “just visiting” as the Monopoly board reminds us when we land on a certain space. The game will outlast us and so will life on this planet, if we don’t mess it up.

In putting those commitments to work, we must actually do work. Freud was right when he pointed to love and work as the essential organizing forces in any life. If you are mature, unless you are aged or infirm, there is work to be done. Life is made more interesting and engaging by doing it, too. The mature person is not simply a spectator in the game of life.

At least one other quality should be mentioned in this pantheon of qualities in the house of maturity: gratitude. Appreciation of what you do have and appreciation of simple things: a beautiful day, the affection of your children, the ability to do things, a touching song or story, and good friends — all the stuff of life that is too easily dismissed.

Let the last words on the subject of being a grown-up (and much more) go to Adlai Stevenson II, in his 1954 speech at the senior class dinner of his Alma Mater, Princeton University. These 55-year-old words spoken by the 54-year-old Stevenson are as appropriate now as then:

…What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws — all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages — are as well-known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.

What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions — a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love — the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men; and perhaps, too, a little faith, and a little reverence for things you cannot see…

To my way of thinking it is not the years in your life but the life in your years that count in the long run. You’ll have more fun, you’ll do more and you’ll get more, you’ll give more satisfaction the more you know, the more you have worked, and the more you have lived. For yours is a great adventure at a stirring time in the annals of men.

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On the subject of maturity, you may find this of related interest: Youth vs. Experience and Maturity: Who Has the Edge?

You may be interested in this topic, as well: Maturity: Ten Steps To Get You There.

The top image is Mevlevi Dervishes Perform, created by K?vanc and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. According to the Wikimedia site, the Mevlevi Order is a Sufi order founded in 1273 in Konya, Turkey. “They are also known as the Whirling Dervishes due to their famous practice of whirling as a form of dhikr (remembrance of Allah).”

“Dervish is a term for an initiate of the Sufi Path… The Dervishes perform their dhikr in the form of a dance and music ceremony called the sema. The sema represents a mystical journey of man’s spiritual ascent through mind and love to ‘Perfect(ion).’ Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth and arrives at the ‘Perfect.’ He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity (hence my use of the picture for this essay) and a greater perfection, so as to love and be of service to the whole of creation.”

The bottom photo is the work of shioshvilli and apparently depicts Whirling Dervishes performing the sema ceremony at the Sirkeci Railway Station in Istanbul, Turkey on June 10, 2006. It is also sourced from Wikimedia Commons.