While traveling in the South Pacific, I had the rare opportunity to see the Magic Circus of Samoa. By American standards, many of the acts were, well, humorous. Like the Lilliputian woman who was hoisted to the ceiling by a rope attached only to her hair, and then flung around the big top like Peter Pan on steroids. Words cannot capture the expression on her face, stretched back as if she had more facelifts than an aging actress. She walked away from her act stiff as if she had just been stretched on a medieval rack. I elbowed Dee and whispered, “I’d hate to be her chiropractor.”
The final act of the evening was a guillotine-toting magician. He chose a reluctant “volunteer” from the audience and ceremoniously demonstrated the sharpness of the blade by swiftly chopping a cucumber. Then he locked the volunteer in the guillotine and milked the tension with a long stream of jokes, asking the fellow if he had any last words.
While most of the audience laughed, behind me sat the volunteer’s wife and four-year-old son. Not understanding that the guillotine act was a magic trick, the boy went hysterical. He believed his father was going to be beheaded. His mom sat at his side and held him, repeatedly telling him, “It’s okay, honey. Daddy will be alright. Don’t worry.” While her words were well-intended and may have helped a bit, the child remained generally terrified. Finally the blade fell, miraculously passing the dad’s head without a scratch, and the man was freed. Soon the child stopped whimpering and the ordeal was over.
I wonder if that boy’s terror is not so different from any fear that any of us face. A Course in Miracles tells us that every experience issues from either love or fear, and we need but understand that the source of love is real, and the source of fear is illusion. If we can remember truth in the face of illusion, our fear dissipates and we return to the comforting arms of reality. At every moment the voice of God is seeking to remind us what is true; our role is to hear that voice and trust it.
So here we sit in the circus of life, when something scary shows up and goes “booga! booga!” right in our face. Someone we love might leave, or we receive a bill bigger than we think we can pay, or we pick up a newspaper and read of wars and rising gas prices and diseases we never heard of. We get frightened and go hysterical (at least inside). Is this really any different than the child seeing his father in a stage guillotine?
Meanwhile a motherly voice whispers in our ear, “It’s okay. Don’t worry. It will be alright.” The voice is soft, yet knowing. We want to believe it, but the illusion before us is raging so blatantly that it grabs our full attention. The orchestra’s timpani have momentarily drowned out the flutes. So we ride out the experience and somehow emerge unscathed. Only then do we realize that the appearance of evil was a trick of the mind, and ultimately the voice of love was the one worth heeding. Welcome to the Magic Circus of Experience.
Growing up, I used to watch old science fiction movies with primitive special effects. There would always come a point in the Flash Gordon episode when I could see the string holding up the model space ship that was supposed to be hurtling through space. Then my buddy and I would elbow each other and laugh, “That’s so fake!”
I wonder if those tacky movies were a training ground to face and deal with tacky experiences in life. Eventually we can look at just about any frightening experience and recognize that if we had remained calm and clear in the face of the monsters at our heels, we could have dealt them swiftly and gotten on with the joy of living. But when we’re in the midst of scary illusions, that’s not so easy, for they seem real and bigger than us. But they are not. If you consider all the things that once frightened you, and what you learned after you passed through them, you will see that you are indeed greater than anything you fear.
In the film version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the grand wizard gathers the young wizards in training and pulls out the huge “boggart box” where all of the children’s secret fears reside. One by one he released the boggarts and instructs each child to point his or her wand at it, shout, “Ridiculous!” and laugh. As each child does, the boggarts evaporate. They could not long stand in the face of the insurmountable combination of truth and happiness.
All of us carry a terrified child within us, and right next to it sits a comforting mother reminding us that it’s just a trick of the mind. Then the game becomes less about running out of the theatre and more about laughing our boggarts to oblivion.
By Alan Cohen