I remember the day from my childhood when I stopped believing in Santa Claus. My nine year-old mind made the cognitive leap from a magical view of time and space to a reality-based one. Of course no one could fly around the planet in one night, even with Rudolph. The internal imbalance was uncomfortable as I tried to decide what to do with my new understanding.
Even though I figured out the truth, I was unwilling to give up the perks of the Santa theory. I basically faked it – pretending that I still believed for an entire year. I enjoyed the charade and its benefits, holding on as long as I could, until it became too uncomfortable to carry my old belief next to the truth.
I still experience a similar discomfort now and then. Recently I found out that a friend suffers from debilitating social anxiety. Before learning this fact from her, I believed that she was arrogant and rude. The first few times I encountered her, she was introduced to a dozen people along with me, which made her miserable. Her body language included crossed arms and a scowl, so I thought she was disrespectful. When she refused my outstretched hand, I decided that she was a snob.
I’m ashamed that I jumped to such conclusions, as she’s truly a kind-hearted, humble person. Because I thought she didn’t like me, I had decided to define her negatively. The part of me that had to admit I was wrong rose up in defense. Who cares if she has a disorder – she was rude. I can’t be friends with a person who behaves like that. Giving up that reality meant owning up to a few unfavorable aspects of my own personality. Hypersensitivity. Defensiveness. Self-absorption.Yuck. I’d rather itemize a list of her supposed flaws.
I have other beliefs that need to be changed in order to reflect new understandings of reality. Prejudices, stereotypes and narrow thinking patterns based upon assumptions are stubborn entities. Like my little Santa secret, I might not be ready to give up some of their benefits. Whole societies behave this way. Racism and sexism are constructs based upon falsities. Letting go of these belief systems requires extensive change and a transition to a redefined power equation. No surprise that resistance is steady and unyielding.
What might that power shift look like? Although I was afraid to give up my Santa belief, I ended up enjoying membership in the world that knew the truth. My friend told me that she was afraid to let people know about her anxiety disorder, believing that they would reject her and treat her badly. On the contrary, she has found consistent kindness and support. Even more surprising to her is the deeper connection she enjoys with those she has opened up to the most. When she and I get together (one on one, now that I know the facts) I’m appreciative that she was willing to take that risk.