Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fairy Tales and Faith

The other day on NPR, I heard an interview with an author who recently published a book discussing people's perception of themselves.  The author's conclusion was that most people hold an unrealistically high view of self.  The author explained that most people will describe themselves as average or above average in categories such as appearance, intelligence, interpersonal skills, etc.  But realistically, only 49% of the population can be above average, meaning there is a 51% out there that are average or below average in any one of these areas.  Yet, the majority of people look in the mirror, see their faults and their strengths, and think, "Well, at least I'm still above average."  Interestingly, the author shed light on the fact that those who see themselves most realistically are inevitably prone to clinical depression.  Thus, there is something mentally healthy about seeing ourselves in this slightly (or not so slightly) skewed and irrational manner.

With this information swirling in my head, I started reading G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy again, and became entranced with the chapter entitled "The Ethics of Elfland."  In this section, Chesterton upholds the fairy tale as a formative force in his life, explaining that to him, the language of the fairy tale is the most rational and agnostic.  Through fairy tales, Chesterton gained two convictions:
1. "that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful"
2. "that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness."

Let us look at an apple tree as a point of reference for understanding Chesterton's thought.  On the first statement, the very existence of a tree of any kind is a wondrous thing.  It matters not how the tree got there.  In fairy tales, the existence of the tree is both wonderful and full of potential.  It could very well be that this tree could grow glass slippers or gold coins because all existent things in fairy tales have the opportunity to surprise and startle.  Thus, an apple tree could very well produce something else, but it doesn't.  It produces delightful apples.  As Chesterton says, in fairy tales there are no scientific laws, only "the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions."  Thus, though a result may be repeated, one is left open to the wonder of something new and unexpected at every turn.  On the second point, let's turn to the apples produced by this tree.  What if you were told to only eat one apple a day or else the tree would die, but if you only ate one apple a day, the tree would go on forever giving you sustenance and delightful satisfaction?  Even if the fruit were so delicious and your craving so intense, would it not make sense to allow the tree to go on forever producing its wonders rather than gorge yourself one day to only be deprived of the delight for the rest of your life?  In fairy tales, rules, however strange they might seem, are meant to keep human fallacy in check.  Would Cinderella have really been sure of her prince's love if he had not been made to search high and low for her?  Would the fairy godmother's gift have been so precious if there was not a moment when it was removed in order for a more lasting joy to take its place?  Is there not some grace that the glass slippers did not disappear, the most brittle and fragile part of the ensemble, the precious carrier of a more precious person? 

The last few days, Chesterton's fairy tales and the NPR interviewee's rationalism have been swirling in my head, and I think I'm finally ready to write down my thoughts on these two authors' interactions.  The human  mind can only handle so much reality before it starts, in some ways, lying to itself in order to maintain mental health. Boiling down our lives to scientific laws denies the real wonder of existence.  If faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen, then faith is the foundation on which the wondrous repetition of a tree producing apples is all the more wonderful because it might have produced glass slippers.  Faith is the foundation on which a King sends his Heir, the Prince, to the lost at a terrible cost, in order that the lost might indeed be fitted with their own glass slippers and brought into their own inheritance as the precious beloved of the King.  So, maybe we're not lying to ourselves at all.  Perhaps faith gives substance to the ethereal ethic of the fairy tale which says that all of us are above average because all are startlingly and wondrously drawn into the embrace of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.