Actually, Virginia


Santa Could Use Our Help

by Carol S. Hyman

On Christmas Eve when I was five, my mother sent me to ask my dad whether he thought Santa would like milk and cookies left out. He answered, “Tell your mother I think Santa would rather have a bologna sandwich and a beer.” Dark suspicions arose then in my mind, no doubt similar to those that prompted a girl in 1897 to send this letter to the editors of New York’s The Sun:

Dear Editor—

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O’Hanlon
115 West Ninety Fifth Street

Today it seems doubtful any self-respecting eight-year-old would even ask that question, much less that a father – however tongue in cheek his suggestion may have been – would encourage such faith in the press. Still, the editor’s response has held up over the years and become part of American holiday lore. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.” 

A year later, my sister and I hatched a brilliant Christmas plan. Having saved our allowance to buy each other gifts, we went to the dimestore and chose plastic cases containing matching pens, mechanical pencils, and other implements long since forgotten. Most importantly, each case held a tiny pen-sized flashlight. Allowed to open just one gift on Christmas Eve, our bright idea was to pick each other’s.

Once our parents were safely in bed, we crept out and used those tiny beams to explore the loot under the tree. That year must have been a good one for our salesman father because our penlight reconnaissance revealed more treasure than we could have imagined. Eventually that trusty little light would help me explore another treasure, the vast land of literature, under the covers. (As a child, I thought “lights out” were fighting words and I still think one of the greatest perks of being an adult is deciding for yourself when that is.)

Light enhances our awareness and provides profound comfort. Humans instinctively long for it. Although I saw the film more than thirty years ago, I still remember how vividly Quest for Fire portrayed the terror people felt at night before they learned to kindle a spark. Whether a fire is lit in the hearth or the deepest woods, human spirits lift as the flame banishes darkness.

Ignorance is another kind of darkness, vanquished by a different kind of light. Barely two centuries ago, doctors went from death bed to birthing room without washing their hands, and the word germ simply meant to sprout or grow. What we know now makes those days seem like the dark ages. But future generations may see this as another dark age, when the mind is so little understood that malignant tendencies proliferate and fester in the human psyche, emerging in unfortunate behavior ranging from rudeness to genocide.

Knowledge and sanitation improved public health in the 19th century. The words sanitation and sanity derive from a common root meaning healthy. But better plumbing won’t remedy an epidemic of confusion. Salvaging sanity calls for a diligent and more personal approach. Call it mental hygiene. While sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant in politics, in the psychological realm, it’s the light of awareness that will illuminate the tendencies preventing peace on earth.

Our language expresses intuitive understanding of the relationship between light and awareness: we shed light on the matter and things come to light. The 21st century sequel to the 18th century Enlightenment depends on human beings learning to work with our minds. By directing our attention using the practice of mindfulness, we can focus the light of awareness on habitual mental and emotional patterns, thus discerning which bring benefit and which cause problems.

Like Typhoid Mary, humans unwittingly carry energetic afflictions and pass unwholesome habitual patterns through generations, leaking toxins into the social environment. Once called demons, these negative patterns are more likely today to be labeled neuroses or addictions, but whatever we call them, they need our attention. They often developed as coping mechanisms; seen in the light of awareness, we can appreciate how they may have served us in the past, and discern the fear that frequently lurks behind them.

Just as disputes become less heated when all parties feel their perspectives are being heard, the simple act of seeing what we’re carrying lightens the load. We don’t have to try to change or fix ourselves, but rather to become conscious of the tendencies we carry. Shining the light of awareness within, we can reconnect with our basic nature. Our inherent curiosity uncovers clues we can use to decode our lives and access the wisdom hidden in seeming hindrances, purifying negativity in the process and filtering from our society confused and contagious tendencies.

And so, these days and always, Santa needs our help. When the latest outrage threatens to overshadow love and generosity and devotion, we can shine a light within, connecting with our hearts, where those qualities always reside. If enough of us are willing to do the mighty work of exploring how our minds work, we might just be able to deliver comfort to a world that is sore afraid.

These good tidings – that human beings hold the key to our own sanity – promise more treasure than we ever imagined, waiting in the dark for us to shine a little light. No need for a penlight, just the willingness and discipline to work with our own minds. It’s a brilliant plan, not just for Christmas, but for every day.

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