My mother said some memorable things. “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?” was among her greatest hits. Another was borrowed from Groucho Marx: in the middle of a less than scintillating party, she might utter, “I had a wonderful time, but this wasn’t it.” Quietly, of course.
Mrs. Stein proclaimed one habitual belief I never quite understood: “Regret is a painkiller for fools.” I gather she was being dismissive of those who looked back in sadness. Though I never took the statement to heart, I regret little about my lucky life. One old sorrow sticks with me, however.
Breaking the heart of a loved one is never harder than when the one is seven-years-old.
“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend) said he isn’t.”
I had learned long before this, the importance of being honest.
I looked at Jorie, but perhaps didn’t recognize just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.
What I valued, however, was her trust in me. Before I answered, I decided I ought not break her trust.
“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”
I can still envision her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.
This was not the last time I caused pain to someone I love, but was the first time I remember doing so 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” breaks your heart into pieces.
That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead to save this little person from the pain of a message amenable to postponement.
Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was a Socratic dialogue possible — a perfect sequence of questions leading her to the same truth without hurting her so much?
A change of the subject, perhaps, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?
Or, should I have lied? “Of course Santa exists, Sweetie.” And then left her open to 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 path for a while, before you realize your selection isn’t quite as good as you hoped. “I probably should have gone the other way.”
No matter which road you chose, “the persistence of the possible” is present. 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 no ideal solution is available, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. We never know the alternative from lived experience, nor return to the moment; because, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” With the passage of time, the river 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 heartbreaks when they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain whether a different road would have made all the difference or none at all.
One can only accept the terms life allows. The metaphorical contract we sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at birth grants 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 on the near-Christmas day; not just about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think back, it isn’t knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, but from the pain of life itself.
Such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also be compensated by beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.
Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.
The good news?
Our love abides.
The second image is of a Young Ashaninka Girl in an Apiwtxa Village, Acre State, Brazil. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons and the work of Pedro Franca/Ministry of Culture. This post is a reworking of one I wrote several years ago.