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Slovaj Žižek likes to use the example of Santa Claus to make a point about the nature of belief. If you ask parents, they tell you “Of course we don’t believe in Santa, we buy the presents. We just go along with it for the sake of the kids.” Then, when you ask the kids, they say, “No, we don’t believe in Santa, we just go along with it to make our parents feel good.” There it is – everyone believing in something that none of them really believe in, going along with the fantasy because somehow the fantasy makes us feel better about the world.
13 Reasons Why has been all over social media lately. Schools are warning parents not to let their kids watch it, not realizing that they’re bringing more attention to it than if they had not said anything, but, whatever. I get it – we don’t want to glorify suicide. So instead, let’s just go on pretending to believe in Santa. What I mean is we adults create our structures, our institutions, our moral and ethical standards, we determine what is good, and holy, and ideal, and then we load it all on our kids. We fight the pornography epidemic with purity rings and accountability partners, all the while never helping young people live into their embodied sexuality. Or, we over emphasize God’s will or God’s sovereign plan in such a way that we either never have to give faith a second thought, or we strike fear into the hearts of young people who have doubts, thinking they might miss out on what their supposed to do or who they are supposed to be. We use trite slogans and cliches to dress up our power plays and money grabs, abdicating all integrity and honesty in the name of total depravity, or even the “glory of God”. And then we wonder why young people are increasingly anxious or depressed; we wonder why young people feel the need to turn to self harm or substance abuse? We’ve constructed a form of religiosity that allows us to never have to deal with the messiness of life, and then we force it on our young people at the cost of their souls.
I remember when Metallica’s Fade to Black stirred up controversy about suicide. The fear was that young people would listen to the lyrics and be prompted to take their lives. The lyrics will put ideas in their heads, went the argument. Only, for most young people who listened to Metallica, it had the opposite effect. The music became an affirmation of life—real life—not the pathetic veneer of life fed to them by parents, youth leaders, and other well meaning adults. I can’t help but wonder if the 13 Reasons Why backlash is something similar. I get the feeling we’re afraid to honestly confront the struggles of our young people. We’re afraid to talk about the serious issues and questions they wrestle with every day. Maybe it’s because we’re afraid to admit we don’t have the “ideal” lives we hoped for. Maybe it’s time we all let go of our desire for the unattainable ideal, embracing the crucified and risen Christ, who frees us to live our embodied, finite, lives. We can still buy each other presents, maybe we’ll have to change it to “Not so secret” Santa.