Over winter break, I had a discussion with a guy I had started seeing, Mike, about whether or not it was a wise idea to raise children with religion. My mom is Catholic, and my dad is Jewish. Neither of them had been practicing for at least 15 years before I was brought into the world, but that did not stop either of them from wanting to raise me with the religion that each had grown up with. The compromise my parents reached was to raise their children without any religious schooling.
As I was bemoaning my lack of guidance, Mike was relaying the horrors of being forced to adhere to teachings that his parents themselves did not believe were accurate. He viewed my situation as ideal: I seemed to have turned out okay (this was only our second date; he would know better later), and I hadn’t experienced the travesty of a childhood filled with lies.
Mike’s assessment of my situation, while endearing for its favorable nature, was largely inaccurate. The problem with my childhood was not that I wasn’t lied to; rather, it was that I wasn’t lied to in a uniform way. The reason for this was partly that my parents were poor substitutes for a religious institution whose tenets are not subject to the personal whims of its teachers. The more dominant component of the inconsistency, however, was that my parents had decidedly opposite beliefs regarding the level of reality they thought I should be exposed to.
My mom is an enthusiastic proponent of white lies. Her maternal instinct to protect her vulnerable, helpless children is strong, and she figured that if she can’t protect by brute force, she might as well protect with a forcefield of untruth. During my childhood, my aforementioned lack of religion left me with a few questions. One that repeatedly pestered me during my elementary school years and that I brought to my mom’s attention was why my family did not go to church on Sundays. (My school was predominantly Christian.) My mom looked me in the eye, smiled and explained that because my dad worked Saturdays and had Sundays and Mondays off, and because my brother and I were in school on the weekdays, the overlapping day off, Sunday, was “Family Day.” I accepted this pathetic explanation for years. I don’t remember exactly when I found out why I did not attend church, but I remember feeling betrayed. I have since brought up this issue with my mom. She either responds with, “I never said that,” or, alternatively, “But Sunday was ‘Family Day.’”
From, “People who are mean are really just insecure on the inside,” to, “I love your brother and you equally,” my mom could dish it out like a soup kitchen worker on meth. Yes, her lies could be comforting. It’s temporarily relieving to hear, “Things have a way of working out.” My problem stems from reconciling these platitudes with what I actually encounter in my daily existence. More of my perception about reality would be grossly inaccurate than it is today if it hadn’t been for my dad.
My dad walked the unforgiving tightrope of reality with my brother and me. His response to my mom’s safety net of lies was to bring forth his blow torch and leave nothing between his children and the alligator pit of truth. My dad’s child-rearing mission was to teach my brother and me that: 1) There is no Santa; and 2) There is no God. He had more success with the former goal than the latter. I really liked being the kid who had never believed in Santa. Feeling jaded at seven can be exhilarating, even if it results in one’s getting in trouble for telling one’s best friend that it’s really her parents who are putting the gifts under the tree and not a busy-bodied philanthropist in a plush red suit.
Despite my indebtedness to my dad for making sure that Christmas was about presents and presents alone, I do not always respond to his dosages of reality with such gratitude. One major point of contention between us is the Dave Thomas issue. Around my sophomore year of high school, I began creating a list of successful people who did not obtain high school diplomas. One night at the dinner table, I was reciting this list, to which Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, had recently been added. My dad suddenly stopped me mid-list. “Dave Thomas?” he asked.
“Yes, the founder of Wendy’s. I heard he didn’t graduate high school.”
“You think Dave Thomas is real?”
“Real? Of course he’s real! He’s on TV. He founded Wendy’s. I’ve read articles.”
“That doesn’t make him real.”
My dad and I still have the Dave Thomas fight at least once a year. He honestly believes the Dave Thomas that television viewers know and love is a hired actor. I counter that if Wendy’s were going to employ an actor to play its founder, they would have found someone much more attractive. My dad assures me that the actor’s unattractiveness serves the purpose of fooling clueless souls like myself. Thus the battle rages on.
All children are lied to in some form or another, to a greater or lesser degree, be it by their parents, their religious instructors or their teachers. Lies are not always negative child-rearing tools. After all, who really wants to go through life thinking that Dave Thomas is a one-dimensional corporate creation? What I admire about religion is not whatever mixture of truth and lies it may have, but that the concoction is formulated to be consistent.