(Oh, those silly humans! So desperate for their absolutes!) Sometimes it seems like the only job of the world is to gently (or not so gently) separate us from our deepest assurances…Maybe you, too, were once absolutely sure that you’d found your great love, the perfect financial advisor, or the perfect mentor, meditation, or medication that would—once and for all—never fail you. And then? Slowly, things became not so sure, after all. Such is our slippery toehold on “what’s real,” and so it has always been.*1
Economic fluctuations are a timely (and interesting) lens for examining our toehold on “what’s real.” Reading the many financial journalists who refer to tales of boom and bust, triumph and disaster, bubbles that inflate and riches that vanish when pins come along to pop them, leads us to question what we once may have thought of as real. How did the money (the multi-millions in hedge funds, stocks, retirement accounts, mutual funds, etc.), if it was really there, just disappear? Was it only blips on a computer screen that existed in our minds in a virtual economy? Comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness”—not, he explained, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but rather the truth we want to exist.”
Or take the world of technology—every day there’s new research that requires us to reevaluate fundamental aspects of our existence. Our identities are being pushed, nudged, and twisted by the arrival of new technologies: artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, brain-computer interfaces, biological augmentation, quantum weirdness, etc., challenging our notions of what it means to be human. There is no ironclad definition for some of the terms we most care about, such as life, mind, intelligence, and consciousness. Where do we begin, where do we end? How far could we evolve and still call ourselves human?*2 What’s “real”?
When we are born, along with it come multiple lenses, our gene pool, the culture we grew up in, our family environment, all of which go into making up our sense of reality. If we had been born in another time and place, to different parents who had different values, things would be different. When our “realities” and what we’ve “come to know” get called into question, and the rug pulled from beneath us, we lean toward what’s familiar. As much-quoted economist John Maynard Keynes put it: We “fall back on conventions, which give us the assurance that we are doing the right thing. Chief among these are the assumptions that the future will be like the past and that the current way things are going correctly sum up future prospects.” In other words, we tend to see things that confirm our views more vividly than those that contradict them. However, in attempting to provide coherence, and make sense of things, we often deceive ourselves.
So, in a manner of speaking, we engage in “validity testing” to confirm and back up our sense of things. How we feel, or what we think, for example, like, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” “I feel it’s the right move to make,” “I think his/her expressions of love are sincere.” “I think you do or don’t like me,” etc. While we somewhere know our personal thoughts and feelings aren’t the most valid tests for determining reality, we use them anyway. We also use tests of agreement. We might agree that a red traffic light means we should stop, or that a rose is beautiful and garbage is not. A medical authority might say carbs are good or carbs are bad, and because he or she is an authority, that creates agreement that they know what they’re talking about. If somebody at work says we look sick, we think it carries less weight than a doctor saying so. We train ourselves to think the more “authorities” say something is so, the more believable that something likely is.
Logic and past experience also factor in here. If we say “pigs can fly,” it doesn’t sound particularly logical, or reasonable. But saying “pigs run fast” might fit into our logic structure. It used to be illogical and unbelievable that somebody could beat the 4-minute mile or fly to the moon, but when those things happened, we expanded our worldview to include them, and that became a new agreed-upon reality. Or we think things are real because materials, physics, laws and other fundamentals (physicalness and measurability) make them so. A chair, for example, is 3 feet high, hard, made of plastic. The family cat, 13 pounds, happily claims the bottom corner of the bed. Or more abstract ideas—like medicine, love, climate change, or government—whether we sit in them, consume them, vote on them, often have a reality that we live with and bump up against in our day-to-day lives.
We construct realities and then forget we were the ones who constructed them. Our most basic orientation to life is hard-wired, like height or shoe-size. However, a huge percentage of the stuff we are certain about is often wrong—and we have no power with it, and it’s hard to see a possibility outside of it. A great line from the movie The Matrix says it all: “Welcome to the desert of the real.” When our relationship with reality has a kind of “is-ness” or “fixed-ness” to it, and it’s “all that we know,” we are at the effect of it—it limits what’s possible and allows only for options like explaining, trying to fix, resisting, or accepting. The answer to the question, what does it mean to be human, gets looked at only through that lens.
The good news is that “reality” is a phenomenon that arises in language. There is no “is reality”—it’s interpretation all the way down. It is all what’s happening in language. That is all we know and all that we have access to. When we know that words can constrain and enlarge the world—a word shaping world becomes a very real thing. As contemporary philosopher Richard Rorty said, “The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. The world does not speak. Only we do.” Knowing that allows us to shake up those realities we had taken for granted—our own identity, or what we understand words to mean. The shift does not get rid of the lens or filters or mindsets per se, but those filters and mindsets stop defining who we are. With the unsettling of old realities, stepping to one side and another, we become interested in what might be, what we can imagine, and new worlds, new possibilities open up to us.
This is about creating—and literally bringing into existence—possibilities for living that didn’t exist before. Imagination and creativity inhabit the province of possibility. I remember when my stepson, Josh, wrote a poem, I think for his fourth or fifth grade class, and the teacher corrected it. He came home that day asking, “Mom, how can someone correct a poem that you created? It’s like correcting a dream.” There’s a great passage, specific to the world of literature, that further makes this point: “Unlike the multiplication tables or the principles of auto mechanics, imagination and creativity can’t be transmitted from teacher to student. Imagine Milton enrolling in a graduate program for help with Paradise Lost, or Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don’t believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug.”*3 Possibility does not engage things in a clear-cut way (black/white, good/bad, true/false). Things that live as a possibility in our lives have a much different impact on the quality of our lives than those things that live as just “the way it is.” Creating possibility is basically how we get to know what’s possible in being human. This is what it’s all about.
1 Adapted from Elizabeth Gilbert, “Certainty,” O Magazine.
2 Adapted from Kevin Kelly, “The Technium and the 7th Kingdom of Life,” 7/19/07.
3 Francine Prose, “Close Reading,” The Atlantic Monthly, Fiction Issue 2006.