This fish has spent its entire existence swimming in water, yet is probably completely unaware of what water is. Maybe the fish does know, and we have even bigger problems than I thought. It’s hard to be certain. And that’s the entire point. (Image/Unsplash)
We’re going to talk a little red pill, blue pill.
Not the way dudes who hate women sometimes talk about it, though.
But like Morpheus does—the impeccably dressed part-time sage, part-time badass in The Matrix.
We’re going to get a little weird. Please don’t run like I would have five or six years ago.
Try hard to not do the thing I always did in late-night college pot-smoking circles when one person would inevitably start waxing stoner philosophy, and I thought they sounded like morons and thus insta-dismissed whatever they were saying.
Because there’s this idea that I think might be the most important idea in the world.
The idea that we’re dangerously blind to what’s constantly in front of us.
Like fish that spend their entire lives in water, but don’t actually know what water is.
And I think the amount of people we hurt or help in life, and how people will remember us after we’re gone, and the relative success of our marriages and work life and parent-child relationships is entirely dependent on how well we manage to execute this ONE life skill.
You see, when I consider what makes someone interesting, or “deep,” or intelligent, I tend to think about it in terms of how much they know, and their capacity for learning, or their capacity for thought.
Maybe you do too. I believe it’s common.
But the more I think about this way I thoughtlessly measure how intelligent I consider something to be, the more I agree with the brilliant David Foster Wallace’s suggestion that a good education should be less about someone’s capacity to think, and more about a person’s ability to choose WHAT to think about.
And that is going to seem intolerably banal to many people, and maybe you want to stop reading now.
Like blinking our eyes.
You almost never think about doing them even though they might be the two things you’ve done more times than anything else in your entire life. Boring as hell, to be sure. But so important. If you stop blinking, you’ll go blind. If you stop breathing, you’ll die.
I think this idea is just like that. Like blinking. Like breathing.
If you’re feeling that mental-auto-pilot nudge to shut your brain off now and move on to the next thing, then maybe that is your little warning light to hang on just a little longer. That means I’m writing this sentence just for you.
I know you might not care, and that’s okay.
I’m not writing it because I think you’re wrong or bad or dumb, or need help from some idiot writer on the internet.
I’m writing it because sometimes we humans mess up our entire lives, and damage our children, and lose everything that’s fragile and dear to us, and if someone asked us to explain how it happened, most of us wouldn’t be able to.
Not because we were careless, even though it might feel like that afterward.
Not because we were reckless, even though it might feel that way to the people we hurt.
But because we CHOSE to think about something else in moments when thinking differently would have changed our entire lives for the better.
That’s not a small thing.
Our bank accounts.
Our human relationships.
I must ask, as Wallace did in his remarkably poignant commencement speech that first introduced me to this idea, that you please “bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.”
The Real Value of The Matrix’s Red Pill/Blue Pill Lesson
Before it was hijacked by men who I perceive to be intentionally trying to recruit broken, depressed and angry guys to join their Women are the Real Enemy Cult, the red pill/blue pill symbolism portrayed in The Matrix served as a valuable thought exercise.
20-Year-Old Movie Spoiler Alert: The film’s protagonist Neo is given a choice by Morpheus.
Neo can choose the blue pill, which will put him to sleep and allow him to wake up in his bed with no memory of recent events, and carry on with his low-stakes, ignorance-is-bliss life. That would have been easy. No risk. Very little danger.
Or, he can choose the red pill. The red pill won’t taste so good going down. It will be hard to swallow. He’ll have to face some really uncomfortable truths, and life will inevitably feel harder. But it will be REAL. It will be the TRUTH. Even if it doesn’t feel as good. Even if it’s more difficult.
Neo chooses the red pill.
After swallowing it, the world melts around him. Neo wakes up in this alien goo pod with a bunch of cords and shit sticking out of him. His weird, goopy, hairless body is hardwired into some kind of massive biomechanical machine tower with millions of other human bodies all sleeping and hardwired into the same system.
Big machines are flying around.
Aside from the machines and the enslaved humans in sleeping pods, the world is nothing but rubble and ash.
Neo had spent his entire life in a simulated computer life that the machines built to make him think he’s living just like the rest of us. With houses and cars and day jobs.
But actually, he was unwittingly a slave to an intelligent race of alien machines harvesting humans to produce energy.
The Importance of Choosing What to Think About
My mind wanders. A lot.
I have an ADHD brain, and I take medicine every day for it.
That means I have a capacity for unawareness (when I’m on auto-pilot) that I believe exceeds the average person, and which I think contributed heavily to the demise of my marriage.
But even if you don’t have similar brain chemistry, you are still affected by blindness to all of the things hiding in plain sight. (Breathing. Eye-blinking. Fish not knowing what water is.)
Our minds—on autopilot—file everything we see, hear, taste, feel, or experience into some kind of bucket.
OMG. That’s amazing.
OMG. What hot garbage.
OMG. What happened, again? I wasn’t paying attention because I just dripped coffee all down the front of my shirt and now I’m for-sure going to look extra-assholey today. NEAT.
We automatically—without any thinking whatsoever—classify stuff in our own minds. How good a movie or song is. How attractive that gal or guy is. How we perceive what others will think about us if they know that we like or do [insert whatever here].
We value and measure whatever we just heard or saw or tasted based on a million prior experiences—which calibrates our personal measuring sticks totally differently than other people’s measuring sticks.
It’s cool that this happens because it saves us an enormous amount of mental energy. Our brains go on auto-pilot, and for that we’re not needing to start drinking heavily or go back to sleep by lunchtime just to survive the mental strain of our brains working a thousand times harder than they do now.
But it’s also NOT cool.
Because maybe when we were young, we were either taught something that wasn’t true (or was only partially true) because we were too innocent, inexperienced and naïve to question what people taught us.
I’m not talking about the big, scary things like religion and politics. Most adults, parents, teachers, older siblings, celebrity influencers aren’t intentionally trying to brainwash people. They simply believe something as surely as everyone else does, and if we value their thoughts and opinions, maybe we adopt them for ourselves.
Most of the time, it’s harmless.
Some of the time, it’s not.
I’m talking about the stuff most people think very little about—whether it’s cool for a man to be a ballerina; whether dogs or cats make better pets; what the vehicle someone is driving says about them.
I know a lot about NFL football and NBA basketball, which many guys like to talk about.
But if I go to a random pub in Dublin, Ireland; or Juneau, Alaska; or Istanbul, Turkey, will the average guy there give even a miniscule shit about North American football and basketball?
I don’t know.
But certainly less than you might expect to find in downtown Cleveland, Ohio; Chicago, Ill., or Boston, Mass.
It’s because people know what they know, and NOTHING else. We can’t know what we haven’t been exposed to or experienced ourselves.
And for everyone, everywhere, we are the stars of our own stories. You, me, the people in Bangladesh, and some other people in Argentina. Everybody. Everywhere.
We have experienced EVERY moment of our entire lives from the view inside of our own heads and first-person perspectives, and filtered through the prism of our specific individual experiences.
And really, this is great most of the time. That you are a unique individual. It’s awesome that you’re not identical to everyone else, because that would seem really boring to me and others. It’s amazing that you’re you. Don’t stop being that.
But it’s also a handicap, even though most people don’t think of it that way because few people like selfish egomaniacs, and most of us want to be liked.
A significant handicap. One with life-and-death consequences.
“Blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up,” Wallace said in that commencement speech. “The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way.”
This isn’t about being a good person or being a bad person.
This isn’t about encouraging people to be virtuous.
“It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being ‘well-adjusted,’ which I suggest to you is not an accidental term,” Wallace said.
The Life-Saving Opportunity Crowded Supermarkets, Traffic Jams, and Adulthood Monotony Provide Us
Note: I just want to reiterate one more time that these aren’t my words. They are from Wallace’s commencement speech to Kenyon College graduates in 2005. And the only reason I know about it is because one of my favorite writers, Mark Manson, shared it several years ago.
It affected him profoundly.
It affected me profoundly, even though I still mess up often.
And I wonder: If it affected EVERYONE profoundly, would most of what’s wrong in the world go away?
I think the answer to that is: Yes.
And I think people who apply what Wallace is encouraging us to do to our relationships with our spouses, friends, siblings, children, co-workers, and even the strangers we encounter in the world—I think if we can muster the strength and courage to take the extra step of choosing WHAT to think, then we can prevent the worst things in our lives from ever happening in the first place.
Maybe we don’t get cancer because we quit smoking.
Maybe we don’t have a heart attack because we exercise and eat healthy.
Maybe we don’t get divorced because we don’t spend years accidentally swinging bats wildly in a room full of the most precious and fragile things in our lives.
Now, Wallace is going to take us home.
“And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what ‘day in day out’ really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.
“By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
“But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to ‘Have a nice day’ in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.
“Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.
“But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides.
“But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
“Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] — this is an example of how NOT to think, though — most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
“You get the idea.
“If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
“The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
“Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
“Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.
“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
“Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.
“This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.
“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
“Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
“They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
“That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
“I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.
“The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
“It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“’This is water.’
“’This is water.’
“It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.
“Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
“I wish you way more than luck.”