Sugarplum-tuckered from a day of cookie-making and present-shaking, I transfixed bleary eyes upon the night sky on December 24, 1980. I could barely make out the red-nosed smear across the cool heavens. Yet, I knew, unflinchingly, that it was there: the glowing streak was as unmistakably real as the Santa who I was sure had been watching my naughty-and-niceness for the previous five years.
At some point, we stopped believing in our myths.
With a childlike optimism, we once underwrote our hopefulness with a belief in the goodness of our forebears—of our American myths. We contented ourselves that we could believe in believing; that, in that single act, we shared a commonality. We believed—some called it faith and others called it hope—that we could progress along a trajectory toward a not-too-far-off perfection. We believed that we were special, that we could leverage a Declaration, a Constitution, a Proclamation, an Ask-not, and a Time for Choosing into a collection of secular scriptures upon which we could base our collective identity. We believed in heroes. We invested in the mythology of a straight line from Jesus to Washington to Lincoln to Kennedy to Reagan to Obama.
We were bound together by our myths: our innocent, optimistic beliefs in common history, common purpose and common future. In this commonality, we proclaimed our exceptionality as a people. We underwrote this exceptionality with self-confirming institutions: strong military, beneficent government, thrilling sport, culture-affirming media: America.
Santa, before we could understand virgin-birth or the travails of martyrdom, is how many of us learned to believe. He was our first foray into mythology. He was, for many of us, also the first myth we’d reject: our first assertion of self-garnered knowledge in the face of patriarchal wisdom. And then, we grew up. We learned: we came in contact with others outside of our immediate spheres and we learned about others’ myths. We learned about Maccabean miracles, we learned about Muhammed’s ministries. We learned that the we that saw the world through common eyes included communities that stretched beyond nearby neighborhoods toward the limitlessness of a vast multiverse. We learned that to those for whom our myths were foreign, we were “others.”
We raced from childhood into adolescence; we slouched into adulthood.
Even as Edith Hamilton’s studies fell into the trash-heap of ninth grade English reading lists, so too have the myths of America’s exceptionality fallen into 2017 America’s historical reappraisals. Multiplied within the endless halls of reflections that the twenty-first century has forced upon us, mythology has fractured like a broken mirror. In our broader we, Americans now understand that our scriptures are made whole with the stories in which there are no cherry trees; we are made whole by recognizing a history that includes Trails of Tears and slavery and Jim Crow. Disappointments fill in the shared spaces within our mythologies.
New information enriched our myths. We found, as they had always been there, heroes to complete our mythology: Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman, Walt Whitman, Booker T. Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King. Unfortunately, for some, this enriching-of-myth was misunderstood as an assault on commonality. Equally unfortunate, for others, it was misunderstood as a reason to stop believing in anything. The rejection of our myths, whether overdetermined or discarded, has scattered us with a freedom approaching anarchy: listless, splintered tribes wandering a vast and uncertain digital plain. We are left without sincere myths to pass on. We are left with no village for our children: no commingled past, a desolate presence, a hopeless future.
Myths need to rise above politics and partisanship. They need to be inclusive, rooted in the best of who we are, like cherry trees and Leaves of Grass; like Dreams of standing arm-locked with neighbors and former oppressors, singing spirituals: “Free at last, free at last.”
We need to re-apprehend the broken mirror image as a prism. We need to re-empower childlike belief. We need to reinforce the building blocks of innocence and optimism. We need our myths for our children and for their children. We need to let them see us believe, to let them know that believing in things larger than ourselves is just fine. We need to let them know that myths, like our bodies and our ideas and our nation, evolve in an ether of progress.
Especially now, we need myths.
Let’s remind ourselves, this holiday season and beyond—for ourselves and our posterity—what it was like to believe in flying red-nosed reindeer, naughty-and-nice lists, and an exceptional America.