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A friend of mine recently wondered aloud if it is psychologically "healthy" and morally defensible to allow children to indulge in the belief in Santa Claus. After all, she reasoned, this may be deceiving them about what she viewed as the actual nature of reality. It was quickly apparent to me that the question was founded on the premise that our world is devoid of any spiritual presence, and therefore that the belief in metaphysical phenomena such as a bearded man driving a flying sleigh across the world to deliver presents leaves youngsters ill-equipped to face the realistic challenges of existence.
My study of the writings of C.G. Jung and certain European phenomenologists - such as Martin Heidegger - has provided me with a coherent framework in which to understand the relationship of childhood fantasy to adult consciousness. I thought to share some of my gleanings from these readings, in an attempt to provide a perspective on this matter which honors the intellectual refinement of the adult ego by describing the manner in which the cultivation of a mature stance toward the world is enhanced, enlivened, and, fundamentally, supported by unconscious well-springs of the mytho-poeic consciousness of childhood. That is, I want to suggest the counter-intuitive idea that the capacity to adapt to reality in adulthood is sustained by the fount of childhood fantasy, what I conceive to be its mytho-poeic function.
Says Jung, the expansion and deepening of psychic capacities across the span of one's life necessarily involves the experience of disillusionment; as mindfulness is enhanced, so too is the cognizance of our inadequacy, finitude, and helplessness in the face of Being. This is the demise of the magical world of childhood and the disheartening confrontation with the world's facticity.
But, if the course of development is "good enough", this period may well be followed by the dawn of a new awareness of that within us which acts to "reenchant" the world. This is a strata of mind that is a bridge between the primal intuitions of childhood and adult ego-identity, a passage between the early, primordial and later, more differentiated facets of apperception. For the person in adulthood, a stream of perhaps forgotten memories expands and deepens their relationship to childhood consciousness, including its mythic dimensions: the primal, fervent sense of engrossment in certain numinous actors dwelling within subjectivity, such as Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, tooth fairy, and trolls. These personages were derived from one's containment within culture. Yet, we are "minded" creatures, veritable meaning-making organisms. Given this, cultural products are only able to take root within the child's psyche because the structure of mind needs them and seeks them out as the raw material around which to fashion personal symbols of its journey through Being. So, we need not (and, more importantly, should not) dismiss early experience of being-in-the-world on the assumption that these were only the comforting deceptions of an immature, hence "primitively" ignorant state of mentation. Rather, as one evolves physically and psychologically through the decades, at a certain point it becomes possible to look back in time so as to revive and re-vision the more primordial state of consciousness in which one lived and moved as a child.
If this more conscious revisiting of the mythic rudiments of mind is done in the simple faith that this original state of awareness was not merely a comforting "necessary lie", but a conduit imparting a visceral and truthful sense of one's embeddedness within the world, then we are likely to find that the mythic poetry of childhood becomes broadened and amended. What emerges is an annotated, poeticized, more deeply-fathomed phenomenal acquaintance with the primordial enmeshment in life first disclosed to one's consciousness in youth. In this task one must be both deliberate and meditative. This means actively asking new, more penetrating questions of one's early experiences, fantasies and musings. At other moments it is a contemplative undertaking, a quiet yielding to what Heidegger called the existential, revelatory "clearing" that appears before consciousness.
From this subjective space may emerge the familiar mythic figures of childhood, though they are metamorphosed so as to conform to the mandates of adulthood. As such, they require a fresh comprehension of their continued presence as constitutive of one's entanglement in the here-and-now. Further, in all this the mind's future-orientation is awakened. Loyal to an imperious and collective unconscious edict, the mythic transforming (and transformative) figures of early life set about their vital role in determining and imparting to the self-reflective adult ego the proper trajectory of life moving forward. That is, this re-visioning of the psychic ground of childhood both roots the ego in the present, specifically, in the demands and tasks of adult consciousness, and also provokes - indeed, demands - the unfolding of an evolving dialogue with emerging, often unexpected possibilities for the future. So, maturation is not a matter of rejecting the childhood consciousness from which all of us began life. Rather, it is a matter of persistently following the organic rhythms by which the psyche discloses itself to consciousness, and in doing so continually transforms its structure.
This is the same way in which we follow a literary tale, one in which individual subjectivity is the stage upon which a cast of characters continually reveal their stories in ever more nuanced and differentiated forms. The cast of this inner multitude perpetually redefines its contributions to the development of the story line of an individual life, toward a finale that beckons consciousness to proceed in the face of doubts.
Following Heidegger's lead, for years I have looked to poetry as the media most disclosive of reality. The works of American modernist Wallace Stevens have been particularly helpful in understanding the paradoxical manner in which this art form brings us closest to the structure of Being. Stevens was not especially talented as a philosopher, though his non-poetical musings on the relationship between imagination and the world as lived strike a chord with me. I'll offer two samples of these here, the first a critique of our normal, taken-for granted manner of defining the "real", the second a re-visioning of the relations between mind and being: He writes, "Realism is a corruption of reality"; and again, "Reality is not what it is. It consists of the many realities which it can be made into".
My essay is a spontaneous attempt to describe how the child's mytho-poeic consciousness is the essential foundation or substrate for all later being-in-the-world, one that can - really, must - be worked with across the years in a manner that sensitively teases out and deepens one's sense of its essential truthfulness, this activity being organized around new, more differentiated states of mature awareness. So, when my girls were young I always confirmed Santa's literal reality. When they were older, it became time for me to help them to think more deeply about the meaning of terms like "reality", "existence" and "truth". This progression did not entail a rejection of childhood imaginings, but rather their broadening and "fathoming". In line with the phenomenological attitude, we may say that the situatedness of mind within its life-world necessarily means that it has a hand in literally creating and re-creating the structure of Being, even as mind is in turn created and perpetually re-created by Being.