The Holiness of Pretending

children in costumes

Photo by Chicks57

I love Halloween.  I know, I know… it’s secular, it’s pagan, it’s rotten teenagers throwing rotten eggs and adults with beer breath in skimpy costumes.  It’s also cute kids excited about becoming their favorite characters.  In my book, that more than atones for all the rest.

What could be more beautiful than the smile on a chocolate-smeared face topped by a cowboy hat or a tiara?  It’s not just the sugar-induced euphoria that makes those dressed-up munchkins so irresistible; it’s the glee they find in setting aside the mundane, in becoming, for an hour or so, some blithe creature never glimpsed by human eyes.  There may be deeper joys in life than donning a pair of fairy wings to traipse through the neighborhood in search of candy, but—believe it or not—there are few that are more important to our overall happiness as humans.

When your child engages in pretend (or dramatic) play, he is actively experimenting with the social and emotional roles of life…. When your child pretends to be different characters, he has the experience of “walking in someone else’s shoes,” which helps teach the important moral development skill of empathy. It is normal for young children to see the world from their own egocentric point of view, but through maturation and cooperative play, your child will begin to understand the feelings of others. –from

That’s right—pretending is an act of moral development.  It is only by putting ourselves into someone else’s shoes (be they made of glass or sporting pointy elfin toes) that people are able to set their own concerns aside and engage in the emotional world of others.

Notice that I said “people,” not just “children.”  I don’t know anyone whose moral development was complete on the day he said, “I’m too old to go trick-or-treating this year,” yet we grown-ups tend to think that is the age when a child must leave his fanciful games behind to join the straight-laced world of “reality.”  We smile at a man in a three-piece suit and reserve a special sort of scowl for the one who dares to dress as the Caped Crusader . . . even as we all walk into the same theater to watch the same movie about the same superhero that, deep down, we all wish we could be.  Admit it: you think it would be cool to take the Batmobile for a spin.  Or to deliver a line like, “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.”  Why can’t I ever think of things like that to say until after my life’s villains have already been vanquished?

Adults pretend.  We curl up under our covers with a flashlight, hoping none of our friends will ever find out we’re reading Harry Potter.  We watch The Wizard of Oz every time it comes on TV, and we never get tired of seeing Toto pull the curtain away from that fake wizard.  We read To Kill a Mockingbird and laugh out loud before we choke on tears of rage.  A book, a movie, a play, a ballet, an opera—anything with a story—helps us to empathize, to explore an emotional world beyond our own.  We know life is too short for one person to experience everything, so we internalize fictional experiences, and through them we gain new insight into reality.  Imagination is the clay where character is formed.

Kurt Vonnegut once penned these cautionary words: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”  Like every other blessing God bestowed upon our world, imagination can be—and, too often, is—corrupted.  We suppress it in the name of respectability, but we also let it lead us down paths of decadence and despair.  How sad that on Halloween, the one day of the year when society openly celebrates pretending, our costume shops are stocked to the rafters with pimp hats and fishnet stockings.  We have so glutted our imaginations with exploitation, we have left ourselves little else to explore.  Oh, the ghosts and vampires and witches are still there—the dark forces within ourselves with whom we are better able to contend after we look them in the eye and call them by their names—but it seems their aisle gets smaller and cheaper every year.  No one wants to be ugly anymore, not even for an hour.  We have forgotten that pretending is about seeing the whole world through others’ eyes, not just ourselves.

This year, I challenge you to remember.  On the Eve of All Hallows, prepare yourself to reach the Communion of Saints by exercising the eye of the mind, the only lens in this world through which we can envision redemption: the imagination.  For my part, I’m going to sprinkle some pixie dust and go for a trick-or-treat through Neverland.  I hope you’ll do the same.

Happy Halloween.


  1. says

    This is a wonderful exploration, Karen, with much food for thought. The Vonnegut quote is spot on! It is timely, too, because there was an article written recently about how reading good literature increases empathy, which you allude to — the power of story to move, transform, heal is great. But as Lewis reminds us, there is need of a “baptized imagination.” Thank you for reminding us all to think more deeply and go more deeply below the surface of things when celebrating this day. Cheers!