Living in the Real World
A stiff wind tickles the tip of my nose as I twiddle a piece of grass between my eleven-year-old fingers. I’ve been a daydreamer from my earliest memory and today I find myself chasing the sky. Here, a dragon floats over my treehouse. There, a giant clown face looks at me. A dog chases a chicken. I see a boxing glove. A baseball bat. A House. It’s so wonderful… to know what is in the sky. But if you were there, chances are that you wouldn’t have seen what I saw. Of course this is because clouds do not have intention. We read into them what our mind wants to read into them. False pattern recognition is a diverting fantasy, but it is fantasy. We do not communicate with the heavens. Rather, what we see in the skies is a window into our own biases, our fears, and our fascinations. How do I know that there is no dragon in the skies? How do I know that the clouds are not sending me a coded message, or that aliens are not using the clouds to try and communicate with me? Even if I believed in aliens, and that they could use clouds to communicate, I could assure myself with one rather easy step: search for evidence that I’m wrong. When I do this, immediately the dragon disappears. The head is almost right, but what kind of a dragon has a huge blob coming out of its ear? Why didn’t I see that before? And instead of a wing, there is a random swirling pillar. This contradicts the idea that the clouds are showing me a dragon at all. I didn’t see these contradictions to my “dragon hypothesis” at first because they undermined my fascination. Our minds are so obsessed with patterns; they will create patterns and meaning out of random information – shapes, Rorschach tests, and clouds.
The difference between art and clouds is that art has intention behind it. Some art has a very direct and easily identifiable intention. For instance, the fable of The Tortoise and the Hare puts forward the direct idea that persistence is more important to success than mere skill. Other art, like The Grapes of Wrath, has a more nuanced message that describes the psychological drivers which shape our social interactions. Their messages are more complex and they take more time to understand. Many paintings simply call forth an emotional or psychological state to consider.
How art and clouds are similar is that people can look at them both and be drawn into false pattern recognition. We often let our current circumstances color the meaning of what we look at, read, listen to, or watch. Then we come away with, not a message to be considered, but a confirmation of what we already believe.
I was talking with a girl at camp meeting who was tired of living with her parents. She exclaimed over and over that she’d be just fine without them. She pulled out her phone mid-way through our talk to make a call. I complimented her on having a cool phone. She thanked me for the compliment then told me how her mom had got it for her. The irony was lost on her.
She jumped right back into talking about how fine she would be without her parents. “It’s like that song Ain’t it Fun by Paramore!” she exclaimed. “It talks about it being fun to be a grown up and on your own.” I smiled and nodded. Then I said that I didn’t know the song that well, and I asked if I could see the lyrics. We read them together and she immediately looked confused. From the opening lines, it became clear that the singer was talking to someone who was naïve enough to believe that he or she could get by without people to depend on. Within the context of the verses, the chorus showed itself for the obvious ironic statement that it was. The message of the song, in the context of the verse, is that it really is quite hard being on one’s own, but that people often take their support systems for granted. They take their status in their small social circles for granted. It uses irony to point out that people want to be on their own, but that very rarely do people want to be all alone.
Upon reading the lyrics with me, I could tell she’d lost a little of her enthusiasm for independence. She then said “Well, it’s still really hard living with my parents. They don’t get me.” I understood. It is hard living with people with whom you disagree. But Paramore’s song wasn’t about how hard it is to live with people, but how hard it is to live without them.
This girl had been so intent on her own world view, she had missed the message that she needed to hear and instead was hearing what she believed was there. She was choosing only to see in the art what she wanted to believe was there because her faulty interpretation confirmed her own perspective on life rather than challenging it. This self-confirmation mentality is not living in the real world.
In the real world, we have no guarantee we are right. We do ourselves a disservice when we go into anything believing we have it all figured out and that we need to show everyone else how right we are. Peter was so sure that Judaism was the only way to Christianity that it took the spiritual baptism of gentiles directly in front of him in order for him to see that his perspectives and his cultural upbringing had blinded him.
I’ve heard many sermons speaking out against everything from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings to The Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve heard sermons against films ranging from Mulan to Star Wars. They all have one thing in common: the people who preached them had no idea how to understand literature. They were finding patterns confirming what they already believed of those works, while ignoring the work as a whole and the message that the whole work was conveying. If the preacher was against the idea of animals having a soul, then Narnia was wrong because it had talking beasts. If the preacher was afraid of lure of the occult, Harry Potter was evil because it was teaching people to do magic. If the preacher was against imagination in general, then Lord of the Rings was simply a devil-possessed treatise arguing for animism and sorcery. These preachers were uninterested in listening to what the stories were saying because they were obsessed with their own perspectives and agendas. I would like to know what these preachers would do with the talking trees in Judges 9, or the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. By their logic, Jesus would have been arguing for communication between heaven and hell, rather than making a point about how important it is for those who have wealth to care for those who do not.
I once listened to a preacher talk about how when you see black and white checkers in a film (a tile floor for example), it’s the Free Masons claiming dominion over that film. This idea is, of course, bordering on the insane. Followed to its logical conclusion, the Free Masons have dominion over a huge swath of mom and pop diners in the country, chess boards, and the finish flags at the end of car races. It is far more likely that people simply use these tile floors because they like the tile pattern of black and white. People simply like patterns. It is how we plant crops and how we predict the faces of the moon. Many patterns are real, and have meaning.
However, if we wish to take ourselves seriously, we need to challenge our own false pattern recognition. We need to take seriously the task of accurately understanding what artists say through their works. Most of all, we need to assume the best of them so that when we disagree with them, we are disagreeing with ideas that they actually believe, not the ones our fevered imaginations think they believe.
And now for the Mirror… How do I pick out patterns that only justify my beliefs? I remember showing my friend a study which made the claim that reading fiction makes people more moral because it correlates to a more developed “Theory of Mind.” (This is essentially one’s ability to read other people’s emotions.) However, when I came across a study that showed that a developed Theory of Mind does not always equate to kindness, and understanding, but can also lead to manipulation and bullying, I caught myself ignoring those conclusions. They were VERY important conclusions, and suggested that it’s not enough to have an ability to read emotions, but one also needs to be able to empathize and emotionally put one’s self in the shoes of the person whose emotions one is reading. Still, in my mind I just wanted to believe that reading various perspectives on reality was THE magic bullet. There is rarely, if ever, a magic bullet, and I should have been skeptical of that interpretation of the data to begin with, but I, like everyone else, like putting patterns together into conclusions that only back up MY unique experiences and perspectives. Letting one’s self do this is a sure way to burn away the life-giving bonds of the Kingdom in any community.
We all fall, but with the gift of grace comes the sacred challenge to get up and try again. So I continue to fight my own biases. I continue to seek a more accurate understanding, for I believe we should all be as honest with ourselves and each other as possible.
We should all be living in the real world.