I never believed in Santa.
It wasn't a big thing in my family. I was raised in a religious household, and Santa was just something that other people "did." It was a fun thing to do around the holidays, there wasn't much reason to it.
I couldn't really tell you when I stopped believing in Christianity. Middle school, I imagine. Once I was no longer forced to go to church on Sunday, I stopped going. It wasn't a big existential moment for me. Church was boring and unrelatable. I believed in God when there wasn't an alternative for me to believe in, which I think means that on some level I didn't really believe it, ultimately. I was just a kid, I didn't have a reason to question those kinds of things. When I eventually came to the conclusion that God (as I was taught) wasn't real, I wasn't shaken by it. I had no crisis. I didn't believe that Christianity as a whole, that my parents and teachers lied to me. You can't be lying if you believe it's true. They were incorrect. Religion was just something that they did.
In my mind, Jesus became their version of Santa. It was a belief they held that wasn't actually true. In a few years, I'd apply this logic to everything I'd ever heard about drugs. I heard that you could die by trying them once. I heard that your brain would be irreparably damaged, that they'd make you stupid. I heard about side effects and horror stories.
I tried them because everyone had been wrong about Santa. It's not someone's fault that their beliefs turn out to be untrue. Belief aren't formulated to be validated, they are formed to give validation. What I had heard about drugs turned out to be untrue, which is unfortunate because with real and honest education about what they do and the legitimate dangers they may possess we might have a better relationship with them as a society, we can understand both their merit and their detriments. Drugs are people too, they're flawed and complicated and can be wholly wonderful.
That statement is something I believe. It bears no factual truth, but personally, it holds a great deal of meaning. I see a lot of people who tend to align with my ways of thinking that think education is the answer. If people only knew they were wrong, they would change their minds. Often, when our belief is something that someone else believes is untrue, we have an innate desire to change their minds. For some, this seems as simple as highlighting facts that someone that disagrees with you simply must not know.
Do you remember when Pluto got demoted? Scientific discovery dethroned a commonly held belief. Pluto moved onto the same plane as Jesus, Santa, Drugs ... Beliefs are our saviors, not because they are actively doing anything for us, but so much that our belief in them preserves our sense of who we are. No one wants that taken away, so of course we will fight anyone who challenges our saviors.
Being robbed of your beliefs is emotionally traumatizing. It challenges who you are on a fundamental level. I'm realizing this come up a lot, but when talking to someone about an issue that you both feel strongly about and both feel like you're right about, you're effectively challenging the way that they exist. Maybe not in the physical sense, but certainly on an emotional level.
Think about the basic language for that: That's what you believe? Well, You are wrong.
You. The creature you exist as.
Are, your very simple act of being,
Wrong, as in the what makes you an individual isn't good; you exist against the the nature of how things should be.
I've written about this twice now in different contexts, but I'm still searching to pull together the meaning. Essentially, these are my beliefs on beliefs, but I don't fully have any understanding of them. I'm still looking for something. There is something about holding things sacred, about things we can't let go of, that I don't fully grasp yet.
It's hard not to talk about belief and belief systems without mentioning cognitive bias. I find this term troubling, but mostly for how clinical it sounds; it's correct, but it's hard to accept that the very nature of having beliefs can be attributed to the way our brain sort of "malfunctions" to sort information in our favor. If it were a malfunction, I don't think it would have survived evolutionary adaptation this long. Do we need to believe in order survive? Can we shed that for pure, provable rationality? I don't know, but we innately seem to believe, or find things to believe in. Beliefs are our understanding of how the world works. That helps us situate ourselves as an individual within any greater context.
Knowledge in itself bears no emotional power. Our beliefs and our feelings influence us far beyond logic. The trick is not to be frightened of the fact that human software is emotional. We just need to learn how it works. What we really need is the ability to doubt safely. We need to be able to question ourselves and be questioned without feeling that we're being attacked. If we can do that, then ideally we've learned how to do the same thing to other people.
Doubt shouldn't be used to dismantle someone's beliefs, it should be made to understand them. Knowing something isn't validating unless it validates an already held belief. Just because you know something doesn't mean you understand it, and we crave understanding more than anything. Being understood helps us understand who we are. It's that kind of social catch-22 that makes it difficult to see eye to eye with someone who doesn't believe (or believe in) you.
Somewhere along the way, we have missed something. We have been able to form solid arguments against people we disagree with, we can be well spoken in our affirmations. Technology has allowed us to speak out, very clearly about what we believe, but with no real contact with our opposition, no validity to our opponents. We run dangerously close to assuming anyone who holds a different belief is only a straw man.
I'm writing this as a preface to another piece, one that's been very difficult for me to write, but I hope will be up soon. I want to pose a question to you the question I have been working on myself. What if they're right? "They" seem to be the shadowy, vague straw men; the enemy to your opinion, but they're real people with real lives that came to these conclusions for a reason. What if the beliefs that you hold turn out to be the ones that are historically recorded as foolish? What does it mean to live in the opposite world, how do you understand that, and what does that mean about you as a person, your heritage, your values? What does that mean about life in general?
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because I've been thinking a lot about how people change their minds (isn't that a fascinating phrase?) Our beliefs and our emotions are the most sacred things we have, and there is such a thing as the sacred, even if the reality of the sacred boils down to drugs and Santa Claus. I just don't know what that means for the rest of us.
This is the story that begins when you are walking alone in the forest at night. You've been warned not to go into the woods after dark because of the witch. She eats children like you. You've been wandering in the dark for hours now, and your light is beginning to dim, it will be burned out soon and all you'll have is moonlight and the occasional, lazy glow of a fire fly. Certainly not enough to keep you from tripping over tangled roots or alert you of the wolves that have been patiently circling you, waiting for this moment.
It's so dark you can barely make out the forms of the trees, but in the distance, there is a warm orange glow, a sunrise all of its own. As you get closer you hear cackling and the singing of a mad woman. Your heart is pounding; you have two options, remain in the dark and risk being eaten by wolves, or go towards this light and see what kind of person has created it.
You decide to find her, and what you see is unsettling. It is a cottage, but the fence surrounding it is made from human bones. The cottage itself is hoisted on two massive chicken legs, and in front of it is a woman perched on the edge of a mortar. cackling madly. She has a long, thin nose that reaches into the dip of the mortar, and through her demented smile you see her iron teeth.
This is Baba Yaga. You've heard of her, and your instinct is to run, but she sees you and you find yourself moving closer.
"Well?" She rasps at you through fits of laughter, "What brings you here?"
"I'm lost, I want to go home." You reply.
"Well, you've come to the wrong place," She snickers. She motions towards you with a bony finger capped with a yellowed nail. "Might as well come closer."
Shit. This is how it happens. This is how you die. You get eaten by a fucking witch.
You are so fucked, you're so stupid, you're walking towards her. You want to run but you walk towards her like she's at the end of a tight rope. There's no ground any more, no sky, no trees, just the long, narrow path towards the crazy old crone that's about to cook you into soup without a second thought.
As you draw closer you see how complicated her old skin is. Its not only wrinkled, it's covered in warts and tree bark, diseases both human and ethereal. Her dark, beady eyes are sunken deep into her bony skull, and you are so close that she whacks you with the tip of her long nose. Her garden hose nose with a mole with a hair on the end of it. By the look of her, she hasn't gotten much sun, but that kind of mole should definitely get checked out. She giggles at you as you walk right up to her. You are inches away and smell her rotten breath, see her dry, mucus coated tongue.
"I can help you get home," Baba Yaga whispers as she clears her throat, "But only if you clean my cottage."
You are taken into the cottage on chicken's legs, which is bigger than your last studio apartment, at least. Most of it is enveloped by a giant, bubbling cauldron, and again, it hits you.
Shit. She's going to eat me, I'm going to die. This is how it happens. I'm going to do witch chores and then I'm going to be soup. I'm so stupid, I walked right into her house and everything. She might ask me to chop myself into little pieces and even though I don't know why, I'd do it without question.
You complete her tasks, but they aren't as ordinary as doing your own laundry would be. In the process, you lose a foot, and in exchange, Baba Yaga offers you a gift: the skull of some poor bastard who didn't clean her house so well. His soul lights up the cavity of the empty skull. She informs you that the light from the skull will get brighter as you get closer to home, and dimmer if you're heading away. She's given you a gift, a way out, and let you keep your life, if not your foot.
The endings of fairy tales always seem kind of lacking in satisfaction, don't they? They always seem to fade out, they're either milquetoast or tragic, or in some rare cases, people get married which is pretty okay given the time period they're written in.
This story is about the Baba Yaga, but the thing is, this witch wasn't just the old crone standing in front of you; she was all of those whispers of doubt and certain doom you had as you walked up to her, as you entered her house. Baba Yaga is scary, but she is also fear. That's what makes her folklore so fascinating; in most of her depictions, she can be maternal and helpful or she can be the cause of your undoing. We will never know what her intentions are. Sometimes she offers good advice or keeps us safe, other times she's there to eat us. Effectively, she plays the role of your amygdala.
Your amygdala as an organ is crazy complex and handles more than just fight or flight, by the way. It receives input from just about everything, it's responsible for emotional learning and development and also handles memory. It's a complicated little thing, and it's also greatly responsible for your fear, which I imagine is why people suffering from mass anxiety find it seeping into pretty much everything; the control room is kind of the same. The important thing to remember is that fear instinct isn't inherently bad, in fact, it's necessary; it's what kept you out of the mouths of the wolves, remember them? "The only thing to fear is fear itself" is a fun fortune cookie mantra but entirely untrue. Fear is to be trusted with discerning.
Calling it Baba Yaga instead of fear can make that big emotional concept seem more definite. You can look a witch in the eye because it has a face. It's hard to internalize looking your fear in the eye, seeing yourself and your big, complex chambers of consciousness without becoming confused. Her cryptic motives and often terrifying tasks that may leave you maimed are also good parallels for fear; usually, the objective of being afraid is to get into a situation where you don't have to be any more. How that happens is up to you and your brain. Learning to identify what is your fear, the witch in your head, can help you face external anxiety or fears more rationally.
If you don't know what Baba Yaga looks like, you'll be terrified of everything. You won't learn the difference between a witch or a tree stump, and you'll become the kind of person who is afraid to leave their house for fear of getting lost. Remember, you know what happens when you run, or avoid her altogether, but you can't know for sure what happens when you confront her. She may even be the only one who knows how to bring you to safety.
I am telling you a fairy tale. This is the story of the witch in the woods.
Before I do, I should tell you that this fairy tale is also a true story. To some extent, they all could be.
There's a distinction between a myth and a fairy tale that could offer a little more context. Myth was the early cosmogony; the stories of gods fighting with seemingly human emotion arguably illustrates the birth place of such. Myth gave meaning to the world. The divide between science and myth is arguably more subtle than "one is provable and one isn't" because myth wasn't established to be proven, it was accepted on faith. Myth focused very much on why, whereas science was concerned more so with the how, and by examining the how, the why was presumed apparent. Both were seekers of truth, and both were understood to be true.
Fairy tales on the other hand, are taxonomy of expression. They can't be believed to be true in the material sense, but they're apt psychology. For some people, fairy tales are childish, and immature ways to express themselves. They prefer to be well read and have an understanding of their issues; in this instance, I don't. I want to name them, but I found that attempting to find their roots in order to rip them out wasn't very useful; my problems seemed alive, and the life they had made them monsters.
When talking about fear or anxiety, or other feelings that are harder to process in the moment, it's hard not to visualize them as demons. We can name them clinically and medicate them with pharmaceuticals, but doing so seldom helps us feel like we understand them. Some people go to a counselor who reads a lot of textbooks and learns the steps to dismantling a feeling to help you understand them. It treats them as inorganic mechanisms. Our minds are engines that are built, damaged and repaired.
Our brains aren't machines, they developed in a nature, and finding ways to translate our thoughts into material expression is easier when you're surrounded by an environment that behaves the same way. In the classic fairy tale, the woods represent your mind, and there's a lot of interesting shit in there for your protagonist, Consciousness, to explore. Once in awhile, your protagonist will run into a demon it has to figure out and subdue, or a puzzle it has to solve. Quite often, a walk in the woods will lead you to the home of a witch.
The woods are a fantastic place and I'd highly encourage you to find some because the parallels to your brain are uncanny if you look long enough. The mutualism between systems seems to operate in the way of organisms (trees and fungi for example) try to protect and operate within a system (the forest itself). It makes it easier to understand your own internal struggles through these representations; in most relatively healthy systems, no one organism is attempting to deconstruct the rest of it, even if it's interpreted that way at first.
But I digress. I promised you a fairy tale ...
These articles focus more on psychology or how individuals function in a society. They're about as well thought out as anything else on the internet, and there's probably typos.