"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 20, 2020

There’s A Monster In My Closet And Other Imaginary Delights

Petey Ballard was three years old and loved to search the house for imaginary monsters.  He and his father opened every closet, climbed the rickety stairs to the attic, poked under boilers, oil tanks, and water heaters in the basement, and snuck up on washing machines, dryers and dishwashers.  Petey was not afraid of monsters.  “I know they’re not real”, he said, but in a way they were, otherwise he wouldn’t have enjoyed the search.  A child’s world is one of could be, probably isn’t,and  certainly might be, a first look into the adult subjunctive, conditional world.  Knowing that weird creatures would not be under the bed but in some way could be, is the indefinable middle kingdom of childhood and the first step to adulthood.

Image result for Images Book Cover Where the Wild Things Are

Those who first heard the stories of the Sumerian mythical hero Gilgamesh in 2700 BC or even Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the 14th century never entirely believed the epic, fantastical tales of dragons and evil spirits retold by griots and storytellers, but never dismissed the possibility either.  The story of Christianity is one of magic, myth, and fabulism. Hinduism would be an esoteric, remote religion without the Ramayana and the marvelous exploits of the gods. The Roman gods of thunder, the sea, and the underworld come and go, mate and procreate with human beings, are at once accessible and terrible.

 Image result for images sir gawain and the green knight

Milton’s Paradise Lost is Christianity’s heroic myth, its Ramayana, its Gilgamesh and Sir Gawain.  It is an epic story of the titanic battle between good an evil, between the forces of the canny, brilliant Satan, and the Son of God sent down to deal with the apostate angel, the one cast out of Heaven and determined to regain his rightful place and dominance over all.

Image result for Images Paradise Lost

In today’s modern, logical, scientific, and objective world, myths are vetted and culled – some still believed and others relegated – but those that remain are persistent and unchanging.  There was indeed a man who walked on water, rose from the dead, worked miracles, is invoked at holy masses and present on their altars.  Millions believe that this Christ will soon return to Earth, again destroy it in a vengeful purge of evil and wantonness and offer salvation to a pure, idyllic heaven to those who have been faithful.

For millions of others the myth of resurrection and salvation by a supreme being is not enough. The myth of aliens of supreme intelligence who will conquer, destroy, and repopulate the Earth is as persistent as the New Testament.

We have never been weaned from the existential fantasy of childhood. Even for supposed non-believers, Jesus just possibly could be real, that an eternal life of beauty and peace could await them.  No matter how hard-bitten, cynical, and dismissive they may be, adults never lose their fantastical beliefs. To be honest, what would the world be without the magical, mystical beliefs of religion and myth?  Nasty, brutish, and short, wrote Hobbes, without respite; and for most at best a four score and ten year slog if that.

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We do our best to mitigate the boredom, the yoke of work and marriage , and the seemingly interminable string of perfunctory responsibilities. There are summer vacations, Christmas presents, graduations, and tributes of our own making. Hobbes never said that life was all nasty and brutish, and even he must have had some fun. 

Yet these outings are just diversions, happy faces with nothing to do with existential myth.  Jesus is always there in the wings – on the stations of the cross, in hymns, readings, and devotions.  Myth, particularly one which has persisted for so long and has become embedded and institutionalized in a human ethos, cannot be dismissed or marginalized.  One may not believe everything – liberal theologians are willing to entertain the thought of metaphor and allegory – but the core belief is unshakable.  In some form or other Jesus, God, are always right around the corner.

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Which brings us back to Petey Ballard and the imaginary monsters in the closet.  The other day he and his father played imaginary foosball.  Petey tired of the movable men on steel rods, and the soccer ball.  It was more fun to play with an imaginary ball and and play finger goal, or to wonder how the moon could somehow shine over the garage and over the trees in the far woods, and on the foosball field.  Childhood was still a place of multiple possibilities where the moon popped up in unexpected places, where imaginary goals were scored, and where scary things came and went.

We don’t grow out of childhood, only mature where necessary. Father Brophy warned that the Devil was around the corner, hiding in comfortable places.  There were good angels, guardian angels, loving and protective angels about.  The world was not as one might think only with kitchens and light stands and Cadillacs.  “Open your souls”, he said, “not your eyes which will never be of help to those blind to Jesus”. 

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It has often been said that the only reason to have children in an affluent age is to relive lost innocence.  True enough, but as much it is to see clearly what we have tried to ignore.  We cannot admit our belief in the supernatural, the mythical, or the unimaginable without at least some hesitancy.  We have been forced to contextualize our mythical fantasies, and not go whole hog.

Petey’s father encouraged him and went with him on his monster hunt every morning.  He was reluctant to give up the myth and the lost innocence.  He was complicit, a willing partner in fantasy, a child himself.

It is too harsh and unfair to say that human beings are a credulous lot.  We were born with myths, fantasies, and monsters in our heads – part of our genetic wiring that helps us in our Hobbesian journey.

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