There are things that matter because they are tangible, solid, real and objective. And there are things that matter precisely because they are not. The act of pretending falls into the latter grouping of things because pretending is independent of anything tangible, solid, real or objective. Yet despite its basis in insubstantial fantasy, pretending can be immensely important in the course of life. When he was a child, our son invented an imaginary friend that lived in a corner of his closet and offered companionship on rainy days and solace when other friends were lacking in compassion. Pretending has its benefits.
Scientists have validated the benefits of pretending even into adulthood. Pretending we are extroverts, even if we don’t feel very confident or outgoing, can actually boost our level of confidence. Behaving as if we are enjoying ourselves can actually result in our feeling greater happiness. The adage that tells us to “fake it till you make it” would seem to capitalize on this phenomenon. The so-called “positive feedback loop” rewards those who pretend to feel or believe something with the eventual realization of that very feeling or belief.
But we think the positive benefits of pretending may extend even further. Maybe we could pretend our way into a whole new identity or a whole new life.
Over a hundred years ago British author Max Beerbohm published a short story called “The Happy Hypocrite” about the remarkable potential of pretending. In his story, Lord George Hell, whose life has been anything but pure and upright, falls madly in love with an innocent young woman named Jenny. George impulsively asks Jenny to marry him, but she replies that she will only marry a man with the face of a saint. George rushes out and buys a saintly mask with which to disguise his identity, and then he tries again. This time Jenny agrees to the marriage proposal, for before her she sees a man with the honest, trustworthy and loving face of a saint.
In Beerbohm’s story some time passes for the happily married couple before a crisis occurs. An old acquaintance finds George and Jenny and is determined to reveal George for the imposter that he is. But when the saintly mask is torn from George’s face, something extraordinary is revealed. Beneath the mask, George’s face has become the face of the saint he was pretending to be.
Maybe it’s worth imagining our lives in new ways. Maybe we could initially pretend to be kinder, more caring, more generous, more forgiving or more faithful than we are – and discover that in executing the pretense, we actually took on those characteristics and became more like the saints we were impersonating.
It’s tempting to look upon the tangible, solid, real and objective aspects of life as virtually unchangeable. But enormous possibility exists beyond the reality we witness today. Spend a moment or two considering how you would like your character, your behavior or your life to be different. Any ideas? Well, just pretend!