Disneyland, Cowboys and Let’s Pretend ~ Is Suspension of Disbelief the Secret to a Happy Life?

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
“joining in”.

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. 

12 thoughts on “Disneyland, Cowboys and Let’s Pretend ~ Is Suspension of Disbelief the Secret to a Happy Life?

  1. And what would that ‘leader’ had said if you told him your power animal was a Human? That really throws people. I don’t say it often.
    Or maybe in such a scene I might have bitten someone. Playing “Power Animal” is dangerous with people who really do it.

    Make-believe is fun. Some days its the only way to get thru the pain. But it doesn’t seem to work for me anymore, like it used to. Authenticity is a hard path.


  2. Just wrote a long comment that got deleted……will summarise now.

    Love the post. For me it’s all about ‘play’ and what engages different people in ‘play’. Just because you did not connect with these experiences – the lassos, shaman course, Disneyland – does not mean you’re not happy in itself. It just means these are not the way you ‘play’.

    People talk a lot about how adults have lost their sense of play – but there are so many senses of play and mine is not another’s. We don’t recognise that. You have a huge capacity to play and that comes out often in your communications.

    Like you I struggle to engage with the examples of ‘play’ you describe – but I love play and often do it, and then I feel happy! I feel disconnected, judged (by self sometimes as much as others) and sometimes excluded when being forced to engage in someone else’s defined play. ‘Force’ and ‘play’ just don’t go together.

    Please don’t confuse an incapacity to enter into someone else’s play (which you/I might find meaningless or pathetic) a lack of being ‘happy’. I am not convinced the people who do/like these things are happy(er) anyway – possibly just delded in a way or very shallow. Or maybe they are happy – but that’s not what I’m after personally. I won’t comment on being happy but just want to say it is not about being able to enjoy Disneyland or throw imaginary lassoes!


    • I think you may be right. I guess it is about others being able to accept that you not liking the same things is ok. I find it hard to deal with people saying, Oh but you must love X, everyone does.


      • I have no difficulties saying, ‘actually I don’t love X and everyone doesn’t’ though it can be a conversation killer. But I find it so important not to have things assumed – it goes against the grain deeply with me.


  3. That last line was very telling Viv, and i had to chocked back the tears a little…. a lot. I NEVER look back unless forced to by circumstance. I have no happy childhood to return to for security. As I have told you, I had it taken away when I was young, and it left me full of fear and self loathing (these things still sit inside me and return often). I feel the same about things like Disneyland and the like, never loved them, never will. I have found my pleasure and meaning in the ‘real world’ not the imagination. Imagination I have, but for me it is a tool, a skill, not a place I live in for myself. I escaped to the only place that was left for me; inside my own mind, and that was a dark lonely place for a child.Religion, belief, let’s pretend?…. I prayed every night to God for an ending to my suffering – it never came. I put away childish things long ago – including my childhood. I ‘found’ the world, the universe beyond the imagination, the body that i was trapped in. And I found it a place full of the wonder and awe and joy I never found in ‘believing’ in things. You see why I am the man I am? I could be no other. I feel for that little girl you once were Viv. I wish I could scoop her up in my arms and tell her everything would be alright. But I can’t do that. I discovered, in the end, we have to be our own guardian angels.


    • My dear, I understand.
      I had a much better childhood than the one you have told me about but it was marred by being myself. My imagination is one of my greatest assets and a great comfort as to imagine a better world is the first stage in building it.
      Thank you.


  4. Ah! (hugs) dear Viv, I see myself in that shy child, in that person who couldnt “Get into the spirit of things” that we know are fake, in that person who knew they cant jump of the spaceship but had to go through the airlock, in that child who knew too much.

    Its alright, if we are here, this way, then we are to be here this way. Theres a reason. Imagine what a world it would be if someone didnt agonize over the others who hurt or see what is for what it IS.


    • Then that would be a world that is filled with psychopaths, as it seems it actually is. Of people who can feign empathy to get close to you to rob you of whatever they can steal and leave you empty and bewildered.
      Sometimes being vulnerable is like having a beacon on our head inviting others to come and hurt you.
      hugs back to you. Glad you understood. xx


  5. I loved Robert Fulghum’s short story about supervising a rather large group of very young children. I don’t have the details at my fingertips, but, in this story, he was an optimistic, new, bushy-tailed young minister. He decided to play a game that consisted of two groups – e.g. Dragons and Monsters. He attempted to set them up on each side of the gymnasium – an even split. One little girl, in the midst of this chaos, tugged at his sleeve until he finally acknowledged her.

    She told him she was neither a dragon nor a monster. She was a mermaid.

    Realizing he would get nowhere with this child, while the others wildly played out their game, he was Father Neptune with one tiny mermaid.

    Reading this story, I was sick that I never looked after myself in this manner . I realized that I never knew I had the freedom to speak up! I believe the validation he gave that little girl was very close to unconditional love.

    I share this with you, Viv: Being “silly” (my standard) is not, and never was, fun. My saving grace – my mother was teacher in the same school during early years. I’d duck out and find her when something was shattering my world. She would suggest how I could participate without the silliness tag and send me back feeling courageous.

    People thought I was spoiled, I detected. I was so sensitive that discipline was, as my mom used to say, “…a stern look at Amy and it was as though she’d been spanked.” I am still baffled when I hurt and no one else understands. Sometimes I am able to regroup and participate my way, but my mother still holds the crown for brilliant alternatives. No wonder I long for her presence. .


    • Amy, that is a beautiful story, both the one about Robert and about you. I know what you mean; sometimes even close friends do not understand why I am hurt by things. I hung up the phone on one dear friend when it seemed he was unable to understand why I’d been so upset about the River of Stones scam some months ago. I’m not convinced he ever understood.
      Bless you for sharing that with me. And you know your mother has only left you as if going into another room; you can still hear and feel her near you, but you can no longer see her with your physical eyes.


  6. Pingback: First Sight, Second Thoughts and Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men « Zen and the art of tightrope walking

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