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The Power and Perils of Kayfabe
What we can all learn from wrestling
My dad loved watching wrestling. He enjoyed the spectacle, the rivalry, and the sheer physicality of the sport. (I call it a “sport” with a chuckle, but still.) I love how he got into the pageantry and patriotism of something that was so American, and yet so far from all he grew up with. We would spend so much time together on weekends watching WWE. He was convinced it was 100% real, whereas I was 100% sure, even at a young age, that it was not.
There's a concept in wrestling called “kayfabe.” It’s difficult for me to describe, so I had Bard define it for me. This was the definition it provided:
"Kayfabe is a term used in professional wrestling to describe the practice of maintaining the illusion that everything is real. This includes the scripted personas, rivalries, and storylines. Kayfabe is the tacit agreement between professional wrestlers and their fans to pretend that the overtly staged wrestling events, stories, and characters are genuine."
To this day, I would like to think that my dad wasn't fooled and was just honoring the kayfabe in the spirit of wrestling. Sadly, he passed away over a decade ago, so I can't ask him what he really thought. Either way, he maintained throughout my entire life that wrestling was real. He was fully invested in the kayfabe.
What are the kayfabes in your life?
This may surprise you, but families, companies, and cultures all have kayfabes. These are all the little things, big and small, that would seem crazy to outsiders but are accepted as a type of reality for those who live with them. Some may think of this as mass delusion, but kayfabes are a part of life. They're accepted as a type of universal truth within different groups, even if people on the outside don't understand them.
Renaissance faires and Civil War reenactments are two obvious examples of kayfabes. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are two others. Judicial nomination hearings are yet another; after all, no one would ever say they would overturn precedent, and they all purport to honor stare decisis. Even reality TV is rarely "real." (A friend told me that when she was on “House Hunters,” she already owned the actual house before casting.)
Even some aspects of religion are kayfabe. We celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th even though, based on the written story, it happened in the spring. Christmas was chosen to be at its time of year as a form of counterprogramming against paganism. (ref) Note that we never talk about that, though. It's all part of the grand acceptance that this was always how it was meant to be.
We have these delusions in our lives as well. We buy into notions that would otherwise be challenging if we thought too hard about them. Traditions are a great example; we keep doing something a certain way just because that’s how it’s always been done. Case in point: My husband and I had a lot of discussions before we got married about what last name I would use. Why would I change my last name to his? After all, weren't we equals? (In the end, I changed mine to his, although we did technically have the same last name in Chinese—Liu/Lau is the fourth most common last name in China.)
Kayfabes are all around us. We pretend our status reports to our managers get read. They pretend they read them. We pretend the animals we eat are treated fairly and ethically when we know many of them are not. We believe that when we recycle it makes an impact on climate change when it really amounts to little more than a rounding error. We are positive our pets love us as much as we love them (I refuse to believe otherwise, and Wonton plays along).
What are the kayfabes in your life?
Piercing the veil
While kayfabes serve a purpose, some live well beyond their usefulness. What if we could stop pretending with each other and start talking about them openly?
My mother's memory was on the decline before the pandemic. I so wanted to believe she was the same person she was before—and in some ways, she still is at times. But when she got lost driving between our old house and our new house, which is less than half a mile away, I finally had to accept that it was time to take away her keys. She likely could have driven for several more years, but the risks were too obvious for us to accept. It wasn't until that moment that I had to face the reality: the person who had been fierce enough to leave her home and everything she knew to build a life in America could no longer be independent.
The city of Ontario did something interesting: They asked doctors to tell elderly patients when they should stop driving. Subsequently, accident rates among those patients were nearly halved. We have this illusion that age does not catch up with us, even though we know that diminishing eyesight and slower reflexes happen with age. We want to pretend our parents are the same fierce and capable people they once were, even as their capacity is affected by time. They, too, feel the need to keep the illusion going so as not to acknowledge what they’ve lost—in their own eyes and the eyes of their children.
We allow these illusions to continue because they serve us and give us plausible deniability. But there comes a time when many of us have to pierce the veil and face the truth. That’s why today, I want you to take an audit of the kayfabes in your life. Make a list of everything you’ve been willfully ignoring, believing, or practicing that isn’t in line with the truth, then take a moment to consider the following questions:
Imagine if someone else stepped into your shoes today. What would they find ridiculous or hard to believe about your life?
What useful purpose does this kayfabe serve for you and those around you?
At what point does this no longer serve its purpose? What is the end of this kayfabe’s useful life?
If you notice a kayfabe that has outlived its usefulness, it may be time to make a change. Whether it’s a reality you’ve been denying, an elephant in the room, or a tradition that’s run its course, start taking steps toward reframing it or eliminating it altogether. This might not be easy, but you may find that by being honest with yourself, you have more clarity, intention, and peace of mind.
As I wrap up this week’s newsletter, I want to leave you with a reminder that not all kayfabes are bad. Some of them continue to be useful, and some of them even bring us value. These little quirks, traditions, and games of make-believe can enrich our lives and bring us closer together—even if they don’t always make sense.
It’s been over a decade now since my father passed away, but every time I see wrestling stories or shows, I stop for a moment and think of him. And I love to remember how much he found joy in something that I didn't understand. The simplicity of that joy is something I will always treasure, even if it was not something that I could inhabit with him, and that is really precious to me. Fake or not, some kayfabes are worth keeping.