An old joke: a kid asks Santa for a pony, goes out to the barn on Christmas, but doesn’t find it. He grabs a spade. Dad comes along and asks, “Why are you shoveling manure on Christmas morning?” The boy doesn’t stop but grins as he says, “I know there’s a pony in here somewhere!”
Another joke: “My dad was tough, really tough. He was the toughest dad ever. But he showed how much he cared by giving me swimming lessons. He’d row out into the middle of Lake Erie, toss me overboard, and then pull at the oars until the boat became a distant speck…Now let me tell you that reaching shore wasn’t easy. That was tough, really tough…But the hardest part was getting out of the bag.”
On one hand, a boy lives in a world of unconquerable optimism. He doesn’t mind standing knee deep in muck because he’s sure it’s just a temporary obstacle. He can’t imagine that his dream won’t come true. In the second joke, the boy convinces himself that, despite blatant evidence to the contrary, his dad has good intentions.
Both jokes use a twist at the end to spring the punch line. Both feature a kid who cannot face the truth. And in both, the boy refuses to give up.
I think about endurance sometimes, about how we carry on in the face of troubles, disappointments, and struggles. Some carry heavy loads for long distances, while others lay down lighter burdens before they hit the first turn in the road. Is self-deception a necessary tool in our survival kits? Do we need fairy tales to bolster will and courage?
Most forms of religion and philosophy provide stories designed to enhance endurance. Their selling points lie in providing comfort and encouragement. Even Existentialism, a bleak school of thought asserting that life is essentially pointless, urges each individual to create a meaningful life for him/herself.
Perhaps the kernel of any joke lies in frustrated expectations. We want to have our dreams fulfilled. We want to be loved. We want to reach the end of our days with an intact sense of personal decency and self-worth. But we remain the punch lines of our lives as long as we continue fruitless struggles to find satisfaction. Even if I finally get hold of my heart’s desire, there’s no way to permanently grasp it.
Is it possible to keep on keeping on while carrying no illusions? Is there a bare-bones way of living free from magical thinking and false hope?
Perhaps these last two questions are just another way of looking for a pony. There might not be answers. But the need to keep digging remains.