From time to time, I joke that perhaps I’m getting Alzheimers. This is only partially funny, I recognize, and not at all funny to those who have a family member with mental illness. But this joke is the only way I know to dissipate the anxiety I truly feel over my more mindless mistakes.
Take for example the time I walked right past our mini-van without seeing it. I was so certain Dwayne had taken it to work with Nathan’s stroller in the back, that I hauled Nathan out the door on my hip and walked right past the van parked in our driveway, never once SEEING it.
When Nathan and I returned from dropping Noelle off at school, I rounded the corner and stood nose to trunk with our mini-van. I was stunned. Had it been there the whole time? Had I truly walked past it, all the while mumbling and grumbling about how Dwayne had taken it to work and left me without a stroller?
I called Dwayne in a panic. “Dwayne!” I huffed down the phone. “I think I’m getting Alzheimers! I walked right past the van today and never saw it! I thought you had taken it to work.”
Dwayne responded calmly, as if I wasn’t concluding the most devastating diagnosis for my mindlessness. “Christin, they have done studies on how people don’t see things they’re not expecting to see. You didn’t expect to see the van in the driveway and so you simply didn’t see it.” I could almost hear his shoulders shrug over the receiver.
I took a deep breath, relieved. So there was scientific proof then. I wasn’t devolving into Alzheimers. Apparently, lots of people don’t see things right in front of their face, even things as big as a mini-van.
Just this past week, the college hosted a Christmas party for the entire faculty and staff at a renovated movie palace on the square. There were drinks and appetizers, cookies and hot chocolate, along with a special showing of the “Polar Express” for the children.
The kids and I grabbed our boxes of popcorn and sat at the very front of the balcony, the entire theater sprawled out below our feet. We hovered in mid-air like this for the entire show, watching as the hero boy boards a steam locomotive to the North Pole. He’s unsure if he believes in Santa and he’s plagued throughout the story about whether or not he’ll hear Santa’s sleigh bells. When the moment of truth arrives, he stands in the main square of the North Pole amidst cheering elves, watching the reign deer leap and prance. He is panic-stricken to discover that he can not hear the beautiful silver bells bouncing along the reigns.
Suddenly, a single bell falls from the strap and rolls to his feet. He picks it up and shakes it next to his ear. Nothing. He shakes it again. Nothing. Fear and disappointment pinch his face. “Okay, okay,” he pants. “I believe. I believe!” He shakes the bell one more time and this time, it rings.
After the movie, the kids and I walked home through the mild winter evening. While we walked, our conversation turned to the other Christmas story: the one about Jesus and his birth. Noelle and I discussed why Jesus was born and what made his coming to Earth so special.
“Before Jesus came, people didn’t know what God was like,” she rattled on, climbing our steps. “But then when Jesus came, he said, ‘This is what God’s like.’”
“That’s right,” I nodded, helping her and Nathan into the house and out of their coats.
She thought for a moment, her little face turned upward.
“Mommy? What if people don’t believe in God, though? What happens to them?”
My stomach dropped, as it often does when Noelle posits these larger-than-the-universe questions. How am I, with my puny non-theologian brain supposed to answer these questions? But then, I suddenly thought of the scene from “The Polar Express” with the sliver bell.
“It’s like that scene in the movie,” I said slowly, trying to feel my way along. “Where the little boy can’t hear the bell. Remember? He can’t hear it until he says he believes.” I glanced down to see if she was listening. Her little face was still, pensive. I pushed on. “Well, if people don’t believe in God, they won’t see Him. Just like with the bell, the little boy couldn’t hear it until he believed it.”
She seemed contented with this answer, and so I pulled off her glasses, tucked her into bed and snapped off the light.
Since then, I’ve thought about my answer. Rolled it over in my mind examining it for any cracks, any faulty logic. The skeptic in me chimes in, “But isn’t choosing to believe in something, just a form of self-deception? Don’t we conjure and create what we want to see, even if it isn’t there?”
And of course, I have to acknowledge that this is true. Just as we may be capable of ignoring something as big as a mini-van, right in front of our faces, then we must equally be capable of creating a reality that isn’t true, just because we expect to see it.
And while this may certainly be true for many areas of life, I keep coming back to this one small fact: while so much in life may actually be empty driveways and broken bells, there is this one time when the mini-van was in deed its whole self in my driveway, steel and paint and glass right beside me, the edge of my sleeve whispering past its glossy surface. The fact that I didn’t expect to see it and so didn’t see it, did not change the reality that is was there, all along.
This Christmas season I’ve been thinking about believing and hearing and seeing. I’ve been mulling over the essence of Faith. I’ve come away with this thought: sometimes, choosing to believe doesn’t have to mean self-deception; sometimes, it can mean opening our ears to a bell that has been ringing ever since the first Christmas night.