Monday, August 31, 2020

"Reality is Merely an Illusion"

Dale Chihuly

As the elevator door opened, our dog Stella leapt forward as if trying to catch a squirrel or a crow that was somehow, impossibly, waiting for us inside the carriage. The lift was clearly empty, but so convincing was her lunge that I pulled back on her leash, doubting my own senses for a second. And even though I detected nothing lurking there, she clearly did, the product of her canine ability to smell into the past through the scents left behind.

If a human had this ability, it would be a superpower: the ability to see, or smell, into the past, to know what had happened in a place or to a person well after that moment was history. Indeed, what a different world it must be for canines with the past always being so pungently present.

Of course, we do see and smell the past. Indeed, that's the only thing we see and smell. The same goes for our other senses of taste, touch, and hearing. There is a lag, ever so slight, between our direct experience with reality and our bodies' ability to transmit that experience to our brains where we interpret it. And because of that fraction of a second, what we experience through our senses is not the present moment, but rather a moment from the very, very recent past. In other words, we are perpetually running ever so slightly behind, leaping into elevators full of the ghosts of things that no longer exist.

It's in these fractions of seconds that our brains process all that sensory input, interpreting it as the reality we see, smell, hear, feel, and taste, making it part of the story we are telling ourselves about the present. We must rely upon our stories because we are simply incapable of perceiving the universe as what it really is, which is energy. As Albert Einstein said, "Reality is merely an illusion, although a very persistent one."

It's lucky, I suppose, that we are perpetually running a fraction of a second behind because without the stories we tell about the sensations we experience, there would be no life at all. Without our illusions, without our interpretations, without our stories, there would be nothing but energy, which is more like an event than a physical thing. Stella tells herself a "story" about the interior of the elevator just as we tell the story of everything we experience and that is what becomes reality. 

We come into this world "knowing" it is all energy and then spend our lives learning to tell the stories that will make up our existence. As adults, we can't prevent ourselves from telling our stories to our babies, teaching them to interpret reality as we interpret it. It is an awesome power, one I hardly feel worthy of wielding. I mean, I generally speaking like the reality in which I find myself, but, you know, it could be better and who am I to foist my interpretation upon someone else? I reckon, at bottom, that's the desire we all have for our children to live a little better than we did, so we try to tell them the good stories and leave out the bad, but better I think is to stand aside and listen to them tell their own stories.

Stories are all around us, they are in everything and everyone. Most are stories we unconsciously tell, illusions that persist like ghosts in elevators. But there are the conscious stories too, the ones we tell ourselves and one another. These are the ones over which we have the godlike power of authorship. These are the stories that we tell about our days and weeks and years, the ones that in the end form the persistent illusion of our reality. 


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