On Christmas Eve, my son and I watched online as Santa began his annual circumnavigation, following the sun, east to west. I too believed in Santa, innocently, for time, then willfully for years after. Santa lived for me in myth and stories to which I joyfully surrendered my imagination and set my desires. When I finally conceded – years after the doubt set in - that Santa was a “poetic truth” of a season, and did not belong on the growing list of verifiable facts complicating my life, I was okay. I didn’t suffer undo disillusionment, only an early onset nostalgia, a desire to un-know, to return to state of perfect – which is to say, unquestioned - faith.
I grew up, unlike my son, at time and in a family where fact and faith both held truths that were easily differentiated. Fact you could record, measure, prove. Faith was a truth one felt, based in story, in myth, and flexible enough grow with fact. What fascinates me, now, as I scribble these words, is how profoundly the internet age has blurred the divide between fact, faith and myth. My son has not merely grown up hearing stories of Saint Nick, he has been shown minute by minute, video evidence of his progress, provided by the US Airforce. Fake facts. “Factual” falsehood, offered with the best of intentions, of course, as way to cement faith, to lend credence to myth.
But I wonder if such “evidence” is part and parcel to the crisis we now face in internet age. We present as “fact” and provide “evidence” for that which should remain story-based myth. At the same time we compulsively question “facts” - such as climate change, or life-saving vaccines - as though painstaking and overwhelming scientific evidence is no more than myth. How do we come to know anything, now?
Descartes would say that only our capacity to think is evidence of our own existence. How he leaps from this rational conception to the existence of God is a fodder for another, longer post. But his method, rooted in skepticism (even as he tries to denounce skeptics), mirrors the fundamental question of our age. How do we live together when everything beyond the self, even fact, is subject to doubt? How do we avoid falling prey to the corrosive brand of opportunistic denial practiced by the current president and his constituents? How do we differentiated fact, with so many convenient fictions masquerading as fact available on the internet? This is the existential question not so quietly consuming us.
But, perhaps this will not be a crisis for my son as it is for me? Perhaps his mind will adapt to differentiate truth from fiction with more discernment than those of us trapped between paradigms. Is such a thought optimism or avoidance? I don’t know. For now, I put the question away, return the Santa Tracker, Christmas cookies, presents under the tree, one small family in an ever shifting universe.