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A Christmas Quarrel

Curiosity

Mandela is dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

A Christmas Carol, from which the above line is brutally bastardised, was a cautionary tale and, in that tradition, I’d like to write one of my own. A tale about Father Christmas, Nelson Mandela, meaning and belief and why we should all be very careful about what we hold to be the truth, because what we believe will shape the world we live in. And isn’t that, after all, the essence of what it means to be creative?

There’s something you should know about me: I love a good argument. So it will surprise you not that I was recently engaged in a very interesting little debate with a friend about whether it’s right to tell your children that Santa Claus is real. After all, don’t we say it’s wrong to lie? Isn’t it important to encourage a realistic view of the world? Doesn’t Santa teach kids to expect something for nothing? It’s a nice fantasy but aren’t we just setting them up for disappointment when they learn he’s not really real? But, being that I was in a devil-may-care sort of mood, I argued thus: who say’s he’s not real? What exactly, after all, is reality?

What we generally mean when we talk about reality is an objective, measurable reality; the sort of thing physicist like to study. We often call this “the real world”. Which is very odd, because we don’t actually live there. We’re not objective and we don’t experience an objective reality. Our brains evolved to seek, find and perceive patterns and the brains of different types of animal explicitly seek very different patterns – that is to say that the realty we live in is very different from that perceived by a frog or a fly. We perceive patterns, not objective reality, and through these patterns we divine meaning. Meaning, in turn, is what drives behaviour. But meaning, and the behaviour it drives, isn’t fixed.

Consider the meaning of a physical object, a snake for example. A snake has an objective existence but that’s not the bit we respond to. It’s not the bit that makes meaning. The meaning is also contextual. In the wild a snake may cause you to run away. We can see from this response that a snake can mean danger. But in a zoo, behind a nice thick sheet of glass, a snake may cause you to look and study and even smile and laugh. Here it means something else.

In many ways this world, a world of patterns, meanings and behaviours, is far more real to us than the objective reality that you’d study in a laboratory. After all, how else does one define a meaningful reality from the perspective of a walking pattern recognition machine? But you’d still probably argue that meaning is tied to this physical world, right? You still need the snake, even if the meaning of that snake changes. P’ah! I give you: the metaphor.

The word metaphor literally means to carry over meaning. And metaphors are powerful things. They permeate our thinking and communication, we use one, on average, every 10-25 words depending on the subject and context. The fact that metaphor is so deeply ingrained (see, there’s one there!) in the workings of our minds tells us something important about what’s real to we humans. Metaphors show us that meaning needn’t depend on any kind of objective reality. Metaphors happen when meaning transcends the object or event. And they happen a lot.

On this basis, I told my friend, Santa Claus is real: he’s a metaphor. The collective belief in the ideals embodied in the idea of Santa create meaning and that meaning drives behaviour. Our belief, in a very true way, makes Santa real. I believe this is commonly called the Ontological Argument. I just call it being a smart arse.

So I strolled away feeling very smug, but what had begun as a fun argument employed largely to look clever, continued to agitate in my mind, trying to connect to something else.

I, like many, have been reading and watching with rapt attention the discourse surrounding the life and passing of Nelson Mandela. Many have taken this opportunity to criticise the man, especially as his legacy is so powerful. And this has bothered me. It seems churlish, in the face of such achievement, to judge harshly the times when Mandela failed to live up to the high standards that history has set for him. But then again why should anyone get a free pass? Shouldn’t we be reasonable and balanced when we consider the life of any public figure? And then it became clear what was bothering me. Nelson Mandela was Santa, sort of.

I realised that just like Santa Claus Nelson Mandela could be thought about as both a literal truth and an idea or figurative truth. While Santa may not literally exist, the idea of Santa has meaning and is thusly part of what we call reality. Similarly Mandela the man is dead and his life was, like all lives, filled with inconsistency and error. But the idea of Mandela – a man who stood for peace and forgiveness, reconciliation and hope, lives on, even if the literal truth is less perfectly pure.

I was bothered by the attacks on Mandela’s legacy not because they were always wrong (though some clearly were) but because they attacked not just the literal truth but the idea, an idea which I feel needs to be protected. We shouldn’t defend Mandela for his own sake but rather because the meaning matters and meaning shapes actions. It’s better, perhaps, to believe in a good idea, even if the idea and the reality don’t always match up.

And with this I leave you: this Christmas remember that what we believe matters, perhaps more than what is literally true, because what we believe will shape our perceptions, what we perceive will create meaning and meaning will shape our actions.

Or, in the words of Messrs Emerson, Lake and Palmer:

“Hallelujah noel, be it heaven or hell, the Christmas we get we deserve”

Photo Credit: Grzegorz Łobiński via Compfight cc

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