I overheard two mothers at a PTA meeting this week. One of them was discussing her son. A student of mine, he is bright, articulate, and inquisitive. He comes at problems from odd angles and his quirkiness is much appreciated in my class. His mother, however, was expressing concern over the fact that he reads so much. He enjoys novels, comics, etc. And like all kids his age he also enjoys video games, particularly the story-oriented role-playing ones. She told her friend—who nodded with great sympathy—that she wished her son would put away his books and live “in the real world.”
I have definite opinions about this. By the “real world” I can only assume she means the one in which he studies for the required exams, gets into the right schools, lands the correct job and makes a lot of money, all while paying his taxes and being a good little member of society. The only problem with this is that all of that—tests, schools, careers, and money—are just as fictitious as the novels he reads. They were invented by people too.
If there is a “real world,” it is the one of nature. The one where people eat, sleep, make babies and die. All the rest of it is, as Shakespeare observed, a man-made theatrical production in which we are all conditioned to play our parts. Politics, economics, borders, marriage licenses, and property are rules of a game we invented, dreaming it all up in our little human brains. They are no more intrinsically real than Middle-earth, Narnia, or Never-Neverland.
Much like “good” and “evil,” “real” is a damn tricky word. In a sense, we could define it as “physical things, things we can all see, hear, feel, taste, and touch.” Of course this excludes economics, politics, mathematics, and a million other things we generally accept as “real.” We could define it as “something we all agree exists,” but this is equally problematic. If the entire population of planet Earth suddenly decided we had two suns in the sky, there still would be only one. And perhaps the best definition, “something that is useful,” opens the door to all sorts of issues. Useful to whom? Useful why? Although, given the etymology of the world (“real” means “property,” as in “real estate”), this slightly sinister definition is probably the most accurate. Surely this is what the mother meant when she spoke of her son. She wants him to be useful.
People generally expect me to be an atheist, since I am so against fundamentalist religions. The thing is, I think the atheists are deluding themselves as well. I do believe in God, and Allah, an Vishnu, and Thor, and Santa Claus, and fairies out in the garden. I believe in them as ideas, which exist just as surely as quantum physics and geometry. I tend to think there are different levels of reality, by which I mean “categories” and not necessarily metaphysical planes. The stone in my garden may be “real” on a concrete level, but something like Santa Claus or God, which touches the lives of millions and motivates all sorts of human behavior, is definitely more “real” in the other sense. I tend to think that our private, inner universes are just as “real” as the outer one we all bumble around in together. Thus, if someone accepts Jesus as a personal reality, I have no issue at all with that. The trouble I have is with those who try to force him to be part of my personal reality as well. Where I take on the role of Adversary is when someone expects others to play by the rules of their own reality, and it doesn’t matter to me if that person is Pat Robertson, the Pope, Osama bin-Laden, Richard Dawkins, or a mother urging her son to live in the “real world.” The arrogance of thinking the nonsense you believe is better than someone else’s nonsense just gets under my skin.
And we all believe in a lot of nonsense. Some of us are just willing to admit it.
I do live in the “real world.” I pay taxes, rent, and teach little Japanese kiddies some skills I hope will serve them well down the line. But I have always found this “real world” dull in comparison to the landscapes that exist in my imagination. Whether it is a good novel, Second Life, a film or my writing, I spend a considerable amount of time getting out of the “real world” and feel no shame in it. This “real world” was, after all, invented by other people to box me in, confine me, and make sure I play by their rules. How could I not prefer to spend time in domains where the rules are mine?
There’s a pair of old esoteric terms that applies here; macrocosm, or the “big universe,” andmicrocosm which is the “little universe.” I believe in the big universe, in gravity, magnetism, electricity, and strong and weak nuclear forces. I believe in DNA and biological drives. But if you think your politics and economics, your religions and your rules are also part of the big universe, you are dead wrong. They are all features of our own inner little universes that mistakenly get lumped in with aspects of the big universe, but they are no more real than any fiction or personal belief.
They’re just more useful to someone else.