I do not believe in fairies. I tell you that at the outset, just to establish my credibility. Like most of my contemporaries I was educated into a benign and tolerant skepticism and the existence of fairies would, on an average day, simply outrage my sense of an ordered and parsimonious universe.
Yet I remember, as a child, sitting in the semi-darkness of Chicago’s Arie Crown Theater, transfixed and transported– transported to Neverland. After more than forty years, I can still remember the sudden heartache I felt when the poisoned Tinkerbell fatally swooned and how I clapped, desperately, to bring her back to life. Affirming there, in mingled witness, that I did indeed, for the moment at least, believe in fairies.
Of course I knew, even then, that Mary Martin was not an ageless boy and that she soared above the stage by means of concealed wires. I knew, even then, the fey and frenetic Tinkerbell, darting once again, across the backdrop, was only an artfully focused spotlight. But that didn’t matter. I had had a revelation.
I recall how my heart expanded, as something true was laid bare behind the artifice, and shared in that darkened theater. It wasn’t the clever stagecraft that has made the play unforgettable, after all these years. What persists is the memory of the childlike hope inspired by those chorused voices, which promised that, if we only believe with sufficient intensity, evil can be bested and love can triumph over death.
That hope is still with me. As an adult, I spend a lot of time suspended in the tension between belief and faith. I am an old man and I have my doubts. But I am more certain than ever that the play is not the thing and that it is a serious category error to mistake the vehicle for the revelation. Even now, muddied as it is, by a simple, mawkish, nostalgia for the perennial boy and his self-sacrificing, companion, I catch, intermittently, the buried gleam of that original, enduring, inspiration.
What then do I believe? I believe that credos have a real but limited use, that the ritual stories we tell ourselves gesture at something true, and that our epiphanies often lie just outside our certainties. So, when I worship, I try not to rehearse my beliefs. Rather I prefer to indulge in that willing suspension of disbelief I first learned from watching Peter Pan. I strive to hold myself open, and wait for the instant of faith, when the narrative breaks and I become aware again of the embedded theme. It is enough that, once in a while, behind the mummery and beneath the liturgical masque, I am once again granted a moment of grace, a quicksilver glimpse of the face of God, which lends credence to the rest of the drama.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.