The Trouble with Reality

by Jason Tougaw

Some days I wish Oprah could be President for a few weeks, just so she could lead a national book club, stealthily getting the entire population to read the same book at the same time. Today, I hope she’d begin with Brook Gladstone’s The Trouble with Reality. It’s an easy read, short and full of insight that would provoke plenty of debate.

The book is Gladstone’s attempt to make sense of feeling of unreality so many people in the U.S. have been experiencing since November. Unreal, man, my hippie uncles used to say. Back then, it meant something positive, world-changing in a good way. Now, it’s a feeling of being unmoored in a world where Twitter rants substitute public policy, where Obama’s sober leadership is upended by a swirl of threats, attacks, and a general aim to create chaos. But world-changing–good or bad–is disorienting. Hard to deal with. That’s part of Gladstone’s argument.

Gladstone’s  book is like an elaboration on Obama’s comment to his daughters after the election:

Societies and cultures are really complicated. . . . This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop. . . . You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.

Beliefs, attitudes, feelings, commitments. We all have them. But we shouldn’t be too smug about how we came to have them. Gladstone quotes the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “Every man takes the limits of his own understanding for the limits of the world.” It’s probably inevitable that we’ll do this. It certainly reflects the divisiveness and anger of the political environment we’re living in. But can we sometimes get beyond the limits of our own understanding? Can we spend a chunk of our lives not mistaking our own perspectives for reality? Gladstone thinks so, or hopes so. If she has a thesis, it’s that living organisms are messy. We’ve got to acknowledge our own little messes and try to look at them in relation to the bigger mess.

“Stereotyping is like eating,” she writes. It’s “an act essential to our well-being. And like eating, there is an unhealthy tendency to overindulge. For this disorder there are no sure cures, and most treatments are deeply unpleasant.” Stereotypes are categories, she explains, and we use them to make sense of the world, to create worldviews that make us feel safe. And “tinkering with your universe” is “a nauseating enterprise.”

But we’re organisms who can survive substantial doses of nausea. The guy in the White House is very good at manipulating reality. (I’m not using his name because this is a digital forum, and we live in a universe of digital algorithms that translate numbers into value.) He’s good at lying and saying, loudly, that he’s reclaiming truth. He’s not alone in this, of course. He’s a product of a cultural shift away from shared Truth with a capital “T.” Even aside from him, people need strategies for thinking with about truth–from straight-up facts to contingent beliefs. We need them when we build reality.

Gladstone asks us to consider the idea that we can’t take credit for all our beliefs and commitments. She asks her readers to consider ourselves as organisms, invoking my favorite biological concept–the umwelt, “the idea that different animals living on the same patch of earth experience utterly disparate realities.” This is certainly true for bats, mosquitoes, dolphins, and humans. But it’s also true within a species, as much for humans as for bats. We experience utterly disparate realities, influenced largely by forces we’re not aware of. They happen to us, through history and biology and politics and art and family and religion and books. Most of what we believe or think happens outside consciousness. If you want to read more about this, I suggest N. Katherine Hayles super smart book Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Unconscious.

I don’t want to be preachy, but I might go that way here for a moment. If we accept the humbling idea that none of us is an architect of Reality with a captial “R,” then we can think about our daily actions and our responses to threats to what we think is or should be real. My personal feeling is that our current President wants us shouting at each other, shaming each other, forcing stereotypes on each other. I believe any successful resistance will require us not to fall for his manipulation. Gladstone writes, “We breed infinite realities and they never can be reconciled. We cannot full enter someone else’s. But if we really look, we might actually see that other reality reflected in that person’s eyes and therein lies the beginning of the end of our reality problem.”

But that sounds abstract. What does it mean for living? I can’t claim to have some big solution, but I can imagine a couple of strategies that help.

  • First, in daily life, take time to listen with compassion. Be interested in people’s differences. Respect them. Act accordingly. Listen.
  • Second, take care with how we spread information through digital media. For example, when the President tweets that he’s going to kick trans people out of the military or ban Muslim people from entering the U.S., don’t mistake this for policy. Notice that he’s manipulating us. He wants us to take the bait. Instead, think about the people, institutions, and bureaucracies that offer hurdles that make it really hard for a tweet to become a law. Support those hurdles. Do what you can to prop them up.
  • In general, pause before acting, or re-acting. Take stock, of the shocking information that slams you so many days and of your response to it. How does it make you feel? Is this how you want to feel? How do your feelings motivate your actions? What do you want to do?
  • Make things that are the change you want to see: organizations, events, art, policy–whatever it is you’re good at.
  • Read Gladstone’s book. Read books written by people who know what they’re talking about, are struggling to figure it out in earnest, and admit what they don’t or can’t know.

Remember you’re an organism and breathe. Breathing is important–every bit as important as thinking or arguing. This guy wants us all in a panic, and he wants to think are differing beliefs are the source of the panic. But that’s a lie. He lies. I refuse to let him be the source of my panic. I have plenty of other catalysts for my panic–more deserving ones, like melting glaciers and deer ticks and police killing innocent black people because they represent a history of realities that scare us all. Resting is important too.

Of course, we should stand up for our commitments and beliefs. We should fight and protest and write our representatives and insist on policy that demonstrates respect, fairness, and justice for all of us. (I don’t believe this is really possible, but it’s an ideal to strive for.)

Who knows where things will go from here? One thing we can all agree on is that the world is unpredictable. Oh, shit: I did it. I just mistook my worldview for reality. Plenty of people are sure they know where the world is going. I do not. I hope we’ll get through this and onto a chapter in U.S. history that involves more mutual respect, a deep valuing of the diversity of people who make it, and a reckoning with the violence upon which it’s built.

In the meantime, I’m determined to tinker with my reality by focusing on people and ideas I respect. I also have a thesis: We will not understand our political world fully if we don’t consider what it means that people are organisms, that each of our belief systems and actions are shaped by the limits of our umwelt. We tinker with our realities, but we don’t make them.

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