Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Spectrum of Pretense

Originally posted on December 22, 2012

I saw the cartoon-graphic movie, The Rise of the Guardians, yesterday, and something in it repeatedly brought tears to my eyes, especially in the second part. At first I didn’t know why it touched me so, and then these thoughts came to me: I have preserved a capacity to imagine and pretend, what some might call “child-like;” but I don’t think this quality should be restricted to childhood! As suggested in The Art of Play, written by my wife and myself, I’ve been determined to help mature adults reclaim this right to a healthy degree of imaginativeness—and by extension, also, a capacity for wonder, sentimentality, and the capacity to pretend.

In the movie, Santa Claus, the Sandman, Tooth Fairy (and innumerable assistant hummingbird-like tooth fairy-ettes—cute!), Easter Rabbit (Australian!), bring in Jack Frost to help fight the Bogeyman. As a theme also in the story of Peter Pan, if children don’t believe in them, the characters lose energy and become more invisible. My tears responded to a deep core of resonance to certain elements in the movie. (I loved the workshop and other scenes—let’s recognize that some of these movies are exciting bits of visual art!)

Reflecting on the movie, I settled on the thought that we must redeem pretending! It is my thesis in this essay to suggest that it is impossible to escape the mental process of elaborating on mere fact, and those elaborations always have some component of emotional wish-fulfillment—or fear. These elaborations can be very slight or very heavy.

Zen Buddhists seek a mental state that can transcend this process and see clearly beyond the process of elaboration, and that this is a worthy goal. I’m not convinced that what is seen is worth the effort, although certainly it helps to reduce our tendency to believe so wholeheartedly in what “seems” to be so. Still, another avenue towards perhaps a similar goal is to learn to more consciously pretend. Most folks don’t know how to do this with explicit consciousness, so the point here is to suggest that it can be done! Make-believe and do it on purpose. Learn how to enjoy much of the benefit of pretending without having to go all the way in to completely thinking that what you’re pretending is the ultimate truth. (Is this a playful form of postmodernism? Maybe.)

My point is that the mind inevitably pretends just a bit. At its most basic level there is just finding some things more “interesting” than other things, separating the figure from the ground. This can involve any sense—hearing, smelling, tasting. It’s noticing. But it doesn’t happen without at least a tiny gradient of desire, an emotional loading that fuels the process of focusing. It takes the tiniest bit of affect to generate the energy to say, in effect, “This is more relevant than that.”

In other words, we may wonder: To what do we give bare attention—and why? Just getting oriented? Noticing figure apart from ground may be part of the desire to become at least oriented versus the un-pleasure of disorientation. But in other contexts where we’re doing it to ourselves, a maze or twirling to get dizzy can actually be fun. It plays with the disorientation-orientation gradient.

Extending this point that the seeking of more pleasure (or less discomfort or pain)—i.e. the aesthetic function—generates innumerable activities. In humans, with their instinctive inclination to add imagery to biological need, humans tend to explore and play with all possible aesthetic dimensions, and to combine them. We lay down stories, pretenses, narratives, that partake of more than fact, and we have done this since early childhood. We see associations and allow a broomstick to be a horse or a rocket ship.

Much of the fun and juice of being alive arises because we generate a hyper-reality, so that when we do stuff, it partakes of more than the dry facts of what is actually going on:
   We do this by making pretend worlds and we do this unconsciously as well as consciously. Every pet generates cute stories that are to some significant degree our projections about the word “cute” and other human projections of smart or silly.

Sexuality is replete with fantasy. Love in all its forms is supported by the little stories we tell of how we met and how we are. When we dance with our beloved it is fun only if it is more than mechanical maneuvering. When I dance it partakes—note that word, “partakes”—of dress-up and the background hints of what the music suggests (music is rich in generating the aura of pretense), the other people, the floor, the flow. We’re Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, even if we’re not actually that good.

The mind finds all sorts of stuff to thicken the reality of our humdrum duties. That’s what the song from the 1960s Disney movie  Mary Poppins suggests, “A Spoonful of Sugar Makes the Medicine Go Down” suggests—we sing, we dance, we get a little intoxicated, we nibble on something sweet. Similarly, the song, “What do the Simple Folk Do” (from the Broadway play, Camelot)—they whistle, they sing, they dance, and the wonder—make up stories—about what the fine nobility do.

The list goes on. We mentally elaborate on our lives. It’s okay. But sometimes it’s not okay. The mind is lazy and it gets stuck in ruts. We believe and believe and then we forget we’re pretending.

Our culture in the last century has gone through a moderate process of dis-believing, which has been good and bad. It got to a point of thinking that enlightenment or freedom or goodness or whatever positive value would come with full literal dis-illusion-ment, but it isn’t so. Sweeping away all illusion leads to a dry world that is without color. Humans need to make a game of things, they need to add some pretense, and they do. It’s an instinct.

My suggestion is not to get rid of pretense, but rather to learn to know you’re pretending, to enjoy pretending, to discover that it detracts little from the pretending to have in the back of your mind that it’s a pretense. Kids do this with play all the time, and grown-ups do this with circuses and other “death-defying” acts they watch with pleasure because pretense offers two levels of awareness—one level is you defying death, the other is knowing the player is safe (relatively), if only because she’s highly practiced.

What has been getting us into trouble is the human tendency to let the pretending become automatic, unconscious, and to push it so that to get the most out of the pretense, you come to think that it’s really, really true. This is superstition and it has been a factor in the inertia of human evolution. Revolutions have been needed to get past the pretense that some people were better than other people (aristocrats and royalty); some people were okay to enslave; some people can be sexually or physically abused because they’re “property”; some people can use ancient writings as authority to tell other people what to do; those elected to office always know best; those successful in business are good people, not ruthless villains; poor people are really noble and innocent victims; and so forth. There are so many of these pretenses that people have come to “believe” were real, and they even added an additional belief that making yourself think that it is especially virtuous to make yourself think that someting is so in spite of the lack of  evidence or even in the face of contradictory evidence! A double whammy!

(The mind does this: Repression is not only pushing something out of your awareness, but re-doubling your effort by pushing out of your awareness the fact that you pushed this or that out of your awareness. There! Now it’s really gone!)

So my game is to suggest that we learn how to embrace pretending, to do it on purpose, to do it a lot, but also to recognize when a given pretense is no longer indicated. This isn’t that hard: Kids  do it all the time in their pretend play. (E.g., Mom called me in for lunch so I have to take a time out from playing cowboys and rustlers.)

You can preserve much of your enjoyment of magic in childhood by preserving your willingness to believe in all sorts of things, while yet knowing that if it came right down to it, you could withdraw your pretense in the face of real requirements of reality. The point is that most of the time actual reality does not require that we give up our pretense. Most of the time most pretense about faeries and Santa Claus are harmless.

Some pretenses are not harmless and people rarely choose them for themselves. Hell is one of the more noxious pretenses and I view it as no better than lead in our water pipes—as poison for the brain. Most ideas or stories or pretenses designed to frighten others should be very carefully. Some are okay—they are safety warnings. Some are okay in context but not necessarily in another context—so what then needs to be learned is judgment: When should a rule be obeyed and when should it better be violated?

The rule that rules are to be obeyed must be taken out and dusted off: Each rule re-examined: Does it still apply? If so, okay. If not, well, then. And if somewhat, bring new maturity to making finer discriminations. Perhaps this should be a spiritual cleansing ritual every ten years after the age of 20.

So what I’m advocating is conscious pretending! Most of the time it really doesn’t matter if I pretend my kitty-cat or puppy-dog is my “baby.” If that works for you and for the object of your affection and nothing is extreme, hey, it’s none of my business. Affectional pretense is personal and giving it free rein is generally okay. Of course there are a few who will take anything to an extreme, a harmful extreme. The Devil can quote scripture, as it has been said. But the real message here is that you give yourself permission to exercise judgment by recognizing that (1) pretending is often just fine; and (2) on occasion it’s not, so watch for what those occasions might be.


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