Disneyland, Cowboys and Let’s pretend ~ Is suspension of disbelief the secret to a happy life?
My first experience of a depressive episode came when I was about six years old. By that point I’d been in full time school for about six
months and was already finding it a baffling experience. There was
way too much messing around and not enough learning for my liking.
Back in the seventies, before any of this National Curriculum
rubbish, teachers got to decide what they were going to teach their
classes and how. I went to school eager to learn to read and write
and all that and within a week was hopelessly disappointed at the
grinding slowness of it all. I even realised that I could actually
already read a bit.
The crisis came with P.E. In those dim and distant days infant schools
usually made you do P.E in your vest and pants and that was trial
enough for a shy kid like me. Balance beams and hula hoops were
endurable but one day the teacher told us she wanted us all to
pretend to be cowboys twirling our lassos. I stood for a second, not
quite able to believe it and watched as my class erupted into action.
They galloped hither and yon, waving arms with invisible ropes and
whooping with delight. I continued to stand there, baffled. I
couldn’t do it. I looked on in utter bewilderment. It defied any sort
of logic or narrative; cowboys do not go round wearing vests and
pants from the Co-op, nor do they try and twirl like that, and
if you tried that on a real horse, you’d be on the ground in
seconds…..You’d surely never have twenty eight trainee cowboys
running round together unless this was a special training session.
And we were too close, the ropes would have had someone’s eye out by now….
“Come along Vivienne, you must join in!” said the teacher brightly, not realising that this set the precedent for my lifelong opposition to
Something in my juvenile psyche fizzed and banged in a wholly ominous way and being five and a half, the inevitable happened. The tears started and wouldn’t stop. I think I cried most of the day after that.
Fast forward to 2008 and a shamanic dreaming workshop I foolishly attended and standing in the middle of a field with 12 other women and the leader(who will remain nameless) I watched as they all “took on the attributes of their power animal” and after watching for a minute, walked off without a word to pack my bags and catch the train home.
Fast forward to 2010 and Disneyland, Paris, and seeing hundreds of people, adults even, getting excited because people dressed in costumes were coming past them on a float, waving and wearing fixed and weary smiles. “I met Mickey Mouse!” breathed one woman with ecstatic joy in her eyes. I smiled and didn’t say, “No, you met some underpaid French student dressed in a Mickey Mouse suit.” That day was only made bearable by the company of the two teachers and some of the students I spent time with. It was actually painful. Everything was fake and almost everyone was happy to accept it for that day as real. Like an atheist among believers, I felt isolated and ill at ease.
During my childhood I played lots of let’s pretend games but within those games there had to be a certain structure of reality. Yes, a felled tree could be our spaceship but you couldn’t just jump out of it; you had to exit via the airlock. Yes, my paper boat could be a ship going down the Amazon, but the dolls piloting it couldn’t carry it over
waterfalls because it would be too heavy. The internal world of let’s
pretend had to follow certain patterns of logic and reason; if I was
being a boy in the game, I had to wear boyish clothes and so on.
I find it almost impossible to believe even for a minute in things I
know are fake, like Disneyland. It ruins any enjoyment I might get
because it grates on raw nerves, and makes me suspicious of what else they might be trying to fool me with. I’m the same with a lot of New Age matters, even though I know enough to realise not all of it is quackery and snake oil and that some is utterly genuine and helpful.
The shamanic dreaming workshop upset me badly because not only did it throw me back to that episode at five years old, but because I was unable to get past it. All I could see were grown women behaving like pre-schoolers and a leader who seemed to take more delight it it than I felt was healthy. I felt threatened by it, as if by giving in and suspending my disbelief I was somehow in serious danger. It may sound an exaggeration but at the time all I could feel was a whirlpool pulling, drawing me into a different dimension. Nobody stopped me leaving, or seemed to care much that I was upset; the leader did try to persuade me to stay and when I explained my reasons he refused to accept my point of view. I’ve never dared go on anything like that since then.
But observation of people who can seem to get “into the spirit of the
thing” whether for Disney or whatever has shown me something that
disturbs me more. They tend to be people who are happy. They tend to not agonise over things the way people like me do.
I asked one friend why she liked Disneyland so much and her response was, “I love it because I can be a child again.”
It’s made me wonder if I ever was a child at all.