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It was the middle of May when my then 7-year-old son, seemingly out of the blue, asked me about Santa Claus.
I had never promoted Santa much because I didn't particularly like the idea of misleading my boys. But I also didn't want to deprive them of what was a supposedly magical idea, nor ruin it for their friends at an early age. So although I'd mention Santa in connection with Christmas, more in passing than anything else, I never hyped it up or had them send wish lists to the North Pole, and I certainly never threatened them with Santa not coming if they misbehaved.
But then there it was.
"Does Santa Claus exist?"
I don't know what possessed him to ask this question on a beautiful spring day that couldn't be further removed from anything Christmas, but he did, when I least expected it. I was definitely not prepared. And yet, like all parents when the time comes, I had to answer something.
I knew it couldn't be a simple yes or no. A yes would be a lie, a no might shatter his innocent world. Not something I could do lightly.
I let it sink in. Tried to process it, put myself in his little mind. Figuring out what to say felt like an eternity.
And then it just happened. I didn't provide an answer, I asked. Carefully.
"Nicky, if Santa Claus didn't exist - are you sure you would want to know?"
It was his turn to process the question. It felt like another eternity.
And then he answered.
I said nothing else. He said nothing else. That was it. A silent understanding. That Santa did not in fact exist, but that my son wasn't ready to hear it just yet. Asking for a bit more time to digest it. On his own terms.
And eventually, he did of course, although he didn't hear it from me. As with most children, the confirmation came from his friends who were all slowly waking up to this reality, some sooner, some later.
If I haven't forgotten it, it's because it was a big lesson, namely that you have to meet people where they are. You can't just bash them over the head with the truth and expect them to thank you for it.
New realities take time to absorb, and some, for reasons of their own, prefer to continue living an illusion. It makes life bearable. It gives hope. The world isn't always a welcoming place. Reality is challenging enough without throwing a bomb into the mix.
The adult world is not much different. The greatest discoveries, even the harshest truths, are strictly DIY. We hear a tidbit of information that makes us question our world view, and we let that settle for a while. And when we're ready, we begin to ask questions. We research. Find our own answers. Turn to others who may already be on that road, further ahead in the distance, asking for input and guidance as we navigate this jungle of new information. We re-adjust our position in light of said new info, and depending on the severity of the issue at hand, we deal with the fallout of people around us suddenly not recognizing us anymore.
We mourn our old truth, we grieve the world we are leaving behind.
It's an emotional process, not an intellectual one, and it can't be rushed. Common sense and logic, statistical data and proof carry very little weight. There are many well-meaning people who, convinced that they hold the truth in the palm of their hand, believe that simply throwing facts and information at the misguided is sufficient. They expect an immediate reversal of position, and when it doesn't play out that way, become upset and resort to mocking and name-calling, in an equally emotional reaction. Insults like "sheeple", "brainwashed", "zombies" - and, ironically, accusing them of believing in Santa Claus - are not only counterproductive, they are downright self-sabotage. Think back to your own process of awakening and remember how you got there. Did it happen over night? Did you simply let someone convince you, or did you do the leg work yourself? Would it have helped had you been judged, demeaned and ridiculed for not immediately seeing the light?
Didn't think so.
You can't have it both ways. If someone, in your eyes, has seriously barked up the wrong tree, you can either sincerely try to help them consider an alternate reality, or you can get them to dig in their heels just a little harder. Nobody likes to be told what to do, even less what to think.
And it helps to remember that we may, just may, be wrong. Maybe not completely, and maybe not critically, but keeping an open mind also keeps us humble, and less forceful in our assertions. Intellectual arrogance is suicide.
I'm not saying to shy away from speaking your mind. State your position. Be absolutely clear about where you stand, and make no apologies for it. Whatever you do, have the courage to share what you know, present the facts, and make your case. Plant the seed - but then, let it go. You don't control the outcome. They will either receive it or they won't, but there's nothing else you can do except be there for them to answer questions should they have any, and give them comfort as they pick up the pieces of a sacred worldview that has been smashed to smithereens.
I don't know at what point my son made it to the stage of acceptance, but I do know this: it wasn't proof. It wasn't evidence. And it wasn't him accidentally catching me in the act, placing the presents under the tree. It was peer pressure, plain and simple. Watching an ever larger group of friends no longer on board with the Santa myth, and wanting to remain part of that crowd. Not wanting to be ostracized for thinking differently or hanging on to a concept that was clearly passé.
So it begs the question - what would have happened if the world around him had continued to play along? What if everyone, into adulthood, had continued referring to Santa Claus as a legitimate entity? What if the media had discussed him like they do politicians? What if, year after year, gifts inexplicably showed up under the tree on Christmas morning? What if the occasional doubt was quashed with ridicule and shame? What then?
It's easy to laugh it off. Nobody thinks of themselves as that gullible.
Yet this is our world. One where groupthink prevails. One where the pressure to conform outweighs all rationale and defies all logic. Where people who dare question anything mainstream are made to feel outcast. The need to belong, to not rattle the cage or ruffle any feathers, is extremely powerful. It takes a strong person to persevere and seek the answers to the bitter end.
And so maybe it's no wonder that people hang on to their view of the world, safely tucked away inside a bubble of comfort and pleasure, desperately trying to keep it from bursting.
The process of enlightenment is a destructive one. If you truly feel compelled to contribute to it, do it with kindness. With heart, and with respect. At the very least, abstain from ridicule, anger and frustration. Stick to the facts. Take the emotion out of it. Don't be preachy.
Because I absolutely promise you - you will otherwise lose them forever.
Sandra is a blogger, life coach and activist.