When I was in kindergarden, I played an elf in the Christmas play. I was one of the red elves, easily identified by my red felt hat, red crew-neck sweatshirt, and red cuffed sweatpants (styyyliiiiin). I was given a solo (to which I still know all the words, thankyouverymuch), but that did not make me happy, because I wanted to be Mrs. Claus. Mrs. Claus had a cool white wig, PLUS her husband was being played by the cutest boy in the grade, and the patriarchy already had a firm hold on me at the age of five.

Santa and gender roles aside, the most traumatic and memorable part of my kindergarten Christmas play experience actually took place in the seats of the auditorium, in my poor little kindergarten heart, hidden beneath my Christmas crewneck, wedged, as I was, between Chris and Haley M.

Chris sat on my left. He was a gregarious kid, and quite pious. I actually have a memory of him quoting Christ’s final words in Hebrew once, on the playground. Haley M. sat on my right. She had an Esmeralda outfit, modeled after the character from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that she often wore to school, and that made her pretty okay in my book.

I do not remember the conversation leading up to the traumatic and memorable moment in question, nor do I remember the aftermath. The moment itself remains heavy and asymmetrical in my memory, like someone jackhammered it out of a concrete sidewalk and dropped it in some permanent part of my soul.

“Santa Claus isn’t real.”
This part I remember clearly, and suddenly, like a television just turned on, and what came next.
“Christopher Martin, you take that back!!”
“I won’t. Santa Claus is a fabrication made up to distract people from Jesus, the true meaning of Christmas.” (Though I can’t prove it, I promise you that Christopher Martin used the term ‘fabrication’).
“He’s not! My mom told me Santa Claus is real.”
“That’s just something people tell kids.”
“My mom wouldn’t lie to me!!”
“Sure she would. She is lying to you. Tell her, Lauren.”

Tell her, Lauren.

Those words would haunt me for years.

I have never believed in Santa Claus. Much to my grandmother’s dismay, my parents decided against introducing the illusion when we were still infants. I received wrapped presents labeled “Mom,” “Dad,” and occasionally “Tim” or “Erin.” Instead of writing letters to Santa, my brother and I circled our prospective gift choices in permanent marker in the JCPenney catalog. I went to sit on Santa’s lap, once, just for the heck of it, and felt wildly uncomfortable realizing that he was just a random guy.

Tell her, Lauren.

This was a truly significant moment in my life, and there is a reason that I still remember Chris’s grinning, red-rouged cheeks and Haley’s big, brown dismayed eyes beneath her adorable nineties bob. It was the first moment in my life where the right thing to do was also wrong. I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was very wrong to lie. I also knew, thanks to the thoughtful and careful reminders of my parents, that to hurt someone else was a very serious offense, and not to be taken lightly.

I knew that I was not supposed to lie to Haley, that I should share what I knew to be the truth and admit that Santa was, regrettably, a “fabrication.” I also knew that if I said those words aloud, that Haley would be deeply hurt, and that her mother would be confirmed a liar in all of our minds, something that I simply should not allow.

And my world smudged, just like the red blotches of paint on my little freckled elfin face.

There was supposed to be good, and there was supposed to be bad. There was a right thing to do, and a wrong thing to do. Always. And I could not fathom a world wherein the right thing and the wrong thing to do were one and the same.

But I live in that world.

As I drove home from a conference this past weekend, my colleague said something that I thought was quite profound. It’s hard when you want to do the right thing but you don’t know what the right thing is. Dear Lord, how I feel that tension. More and more every day.

I really, truly want with all of my heart to do the right thing. I want to do the right thing in a world where we stab and we crush and we stain and we starve with our hands and our words and our eyes and our guns. In a world that bleeds. And aches. And hates. And weeps. I want so badly to do the right thing. And I try. I think that I try quite hard. Though I’m only measuring my effort against itself, really. And sometimes I’m afraid to do anything at all, for fear that the step I take will be the wrong one. And, almost assuredly, whether it is or it isn’t, someone will think so.

Because none of us really know, do we? How to take the beautiful nails of truth, even when we find them, and hammer them into the rusty, old banged up birdhouses that are our lives. Because the people that knew how and have known how are much better carpenters than we will ever be.

And I guess that’s important to remember. We’re all bad at doing the right thing, though some of us are worse than others, I think. But it isn’t our job to be better at it than someone else; our job is to get as close to the original carpentry as we can ourselves.

I wish I could say that I know what I should have said in that Christmas moment, waiting for the kindergarten play, sad and confused under my little felt hat. I wish I could tell you that the benefit of years has given me the wisdom to realize the perfect way to balance both kindness and truth. I wish I could tell you that I know the right thing to do now, that I can tell you exactly the shade of gray that takes the best of all rights and makes it as good as possible on this earth. I wish I could tell you what I would go back and tell my scared little kindergarten self, if I had the chance.

But I can’t tell you that.
Because I don’t know.

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