One of the first essays I assigned as a brand new Instructor at the University of Rhode Island many years ago was the question: “What Is Real?” The students were allowed to take the question wherever they wanted and provide reasonable answers to the question. It was one of my first thought exercises in the spirit of Robert Hutchins’ admonition: the only questions worth asking are those that have no answers.
Be that as it may, there is a genuine problem out there in our world that has seldom, if ever, been addressed in a direct manner. It surfaced recently in a comic I like to check out each day as a young girl staring at her iPhone told her parents who were captivated by a fireworks display that “Snapshot” had shown a much more thrilling event recently. She was completely bored by the real thing. Think about that: reality is boring because it fails to measure up to make-believe.
Freud talks about the “reality principle” that is essential for humans to develop in a healthy manner — the ability to separate reality from illusion. At birth we know only hunger and crave the pleasure that comes from satisfying that hunger and the quick response to our other immediate needs — including love from our parents. We spend the rest of our lives wishing we were back in the womb where it was safe and all our needs were immediately satisfied. But life hits us squarely in the buttocks and we grow painfully into adulthood. In the process we occasionally retreat into our own heads and find it a safe place to retreat to when things in the real world become too threatening. It’s called becoming an adult. But a large part of growing up involves the realization that we cannot remain within our own heads and become healthy, mature adults at the same time.
The point is that as we grow older we are also supposed to also grow more certain about what is real and what is make-believe. And frightening as reality can be at times (especially these times!) we must prefer it to an imaginary world in which we are all-powerful and in complete control — like the world of electronic toys. We already know these toys are addictive: they release quantities of dopamine into the brain, just as does gambling or alcohol. But I speak here of a deeper problem. For many who engage with these toys reality becomes hard, too hard, and they retreat into a make-believe world which seems safer but which can entrap them for the remainder of their lives. Reality shrinks and the world of make-believe becomes larger and it becomes OUR world. It’s called “delusion,” or eventually “psychosis.”
Many of us are aware that our feckless leader lives in such a world. It is disturbing to say the least. But it pales in contrast to the fact that he is joined in that make-believe world by growing numbers of people who find reality simply too hard to deal with in a direct and honest manner. Thus do games, and, indeed, the world of entertainment as a whole, draw us to them and the imaginary world becomes the real world, a world in which we are at the center and a world that bends to our every wish. The problem is that this is not the real world. The real world is one of pain and struggle with a blend of heroism, love, sympathy for others and, we would hope, a sincere wish to belong with others to a world we share but cannot bring utterly under our control.
One must wonder where this will eventually lead us all, given the genuine need to address real problems and suggest real solutions. There is much to do and there are problems waiting to be addressed. We start in the wrong direction if we take in hand an electronic toy that leads us to believe that it is all very simple and problems that arise can be solved by pushing an icon.
In answer to my own question, then, I would say reality is what we experience daily; it is a struggle tempered by occasional beauty, a remarkable number of good people, and those few who are close to us whom we love. It involves frustration at times, but it also rewards heroic efforts — or even the slightest effort — to do the right thing. We cannot solve all the world’s problems, but we can certainly address those closest to us which allow us to make small inroads into solutions that will help make the world a better place. The real world, not an imaginary one.