The Matrix ploy is an old and powerful story — you know, the one that manifests in a version of “reality” that seems uncontestable, dominates each waking moment, and is reinforced by everything around us from schools to media and beyond. A new story would be to remember an even older one, reminding us that the reality of social reproduction is merely the slushy tip of a much larger time-tested iceberg.
* * *
The neon sign up ahead said, “This Way to Step into a New Story.” I had no idea what that meant, but since the whole thing was an accident of fate, I figured it couldn’t do any more harm to lean in…
I was originally supposed to be on the 12:30 train to Yakima but the mountain pass had gotten snowed out by a freak June blizzard, which had come on the heels of a series of scorching fires and near-hundred degree days. How we could go from fires to blizzards with nothing in between was bizarre if you thought about it, but no one really did very much anymore.
Anyway, the train was rerouted to this little town called Cashmere, if you could call it a town. There was a generic-looking cafe there, a hipster vintage thrift shop, and of course a local brewery. We had a brief layover before the train was to circle around the closed mountain pass and approach Yakima from the east. So I wandered through the town to get some air.
Aimless, I found myself at the entrance to an odd high-tech structure surfaced with metal risers and sheen glass, like a misplaced remnant from a bygone World’s Fair perhaps? The door slid open invitingly when I neared, and I was immediately whisked onto a moving sidewalk conveyor platform. But this was unlike any other such device I had been on in airports, etc.; it was a full sensory experience.
The crawling belt took me through about a dozen different scenes that I later learned were called BI(H)OMES. Each one depicted some version of a world where people, plants, and animals were connected through elegant systems of “reciprocal mutuality,” as the narrator described it. I’m enough of an eco-nerd to have some idea what this meant, but seeing 3D examples up close was very powerful.
I don’t have time to share all the details, but the big ideas in these scenes were compelling reminders of how simple it could be to get back to right relations in our lives and societies, if we had the will to do so. No new technologies were needed, no superpowers, no alien interventions. All it would require was the courage to take that first step, into that new story.
* * *
I’ve written about all of this before in both personal and shared contexts, and I won’t try to replicate that here — except to simply note that many years ago I met someone who couldn’t have been any more different than me, yet somehow we found a kindredness of spirit that helped me to transform my life from mere acceptance to active cultivation. I never really had the chance to thank them over the years beyond the real-time ways I tried to do so back at that moment, but the gifts they gave me — openness, resilience, gratitude, wonder — have remained at the core of the aspirations that I still strive for today.
* * *
You never listen, exclaimed Alpha, exasperated. It has been like this for thousands of years, ever since the arrival of the Great Eye over this world’s equator.
It will pass soon, replied Zeta, calmly. They always tried to talk in simple soothing tones, especially since the arrival of the Eye had turned everything into turmoil.
Alpha went on to express their doubts, agitated and not comprehending how Zeta could be so cavalier, so dismissive of its legitimate concerns. This is not natural, Alpha insisted; we have done something wrong here and have to fix it right away.
Zeta sighed. Yes, things are more unsettling and conditions are changing, but this is always the case and it is part of a bigger plan than you and I can fully understand, they implored. This tone was meant to soothe Alpha’s fears but always did the opposite.
They talked past each other for eons, never getting anywhere while the Eye grew larger and its impacts more severe. Perhaps Alpha is partly right, thought Zeta, realizing the gravity of the situation. Maybe Zeta has a point, Alpha wondered, to step back and not opt for quick fixes that could make things worse.
But neither would ever acknowledge this out loud, both thinking they could simply abandon this world for a new one if things did not eventually improve here.
The Eye, for its part, watched them curiously and wondered why it was not included in the conversation as well, shouting its truth with every gust and torrent. One story, many views, said the Eye to no one in particular, fully aware of the irony of being the one to urge harmony — which was, after all, its paradoxical purpose.
* * *
Ten … Nine … Eight …
The countdown was relentless yet the voice was soothing. Soon the fog of numbness would fully envelop her and the release of her physical pain would finally be complete. Her other pains, the ones worn on the inside, would take far longer to subside.
It’s not like it was all my fault, she thought with the last conscious neural processes that would occur in her brain for a while, a few hours perhaps or maybe a couple of days of semi-aware grogginess — or possibly even forever, if the procedure went south.
This final active thought imprinted on her, like the way an image will linger at the event horizon of a black hole with its ghostly light frozen on the edge of annihilation for eternity. Maybe this was her intent, after all, to let the unconscious mind ponder failure.
Seven … Six … Five …
We were moving too fast, she heard no one in particular say. We were imposing on nature, trying to make monuments to ourselves, tampering with the essence of matter and time in ways that angered the gods of relative and inherent uncertainty. We were filled with self-importance, awards glinting in our eyes, ready to be remembered for all time as the ones who cracked the source code of the universe…
Unfortunately and predictably, however, the cosmos had other ideas, determined to keep its powers of fabrication and transmogrification concealed for a while longer at least — seeming to grasp the impacts if humanity had mastered the fountain of alchemy too soon.
Four … Three … Two …
In the misguided attempt to do so, in the quest to hold the core of creation in our own palms, lives were lost. Many of them, hundreds or even thousands. She had failed them, her team, the hopes of millions, the investments of billionaires. It was her fault, not only hers, but as one of the team’s few survivors it would be hers to bear. Failure would follow her forever.
And yet … and yet, somehow this price paid may pale in comparison to the cost of what we were about to unleash, sighed the formless voice in her inoperative mind. Surely, it whispered, your broken body and the lives lost, tragic as they are, would be preferable to extinction. Failing them but saving others, it offered.
That kind of moral math was beyond her at this point. Philosophers can debate trolley problems and lifeboat ethics, but real people have to walk a fine line between concern and dissonance that lends itself to checking out and letting someone else worry about the mess. Most people aren’t even trying to make sense of it, the untenable nature of their lives.
If her failure could serve to arouse awareness where there had been apathy, to spark compassion in the face of complicity, to center humility rather than hubris, urged the voice, then perhaps it had unfolded as the balance of unseen and unknowable things intended it to be. Skeptical, she would have to sit with this, if time allowed for it.
* * *
The lesson: when the mundane is miraculous and the real-time is reverent, perhaps we’re getting closer to the true nature of our selves and this reality. I like to think of myself as someone who embraces this ethos, but we all know how powerful the pull of our busy lives can be in terms of disrupting that. Still, the sense of awe and wonder pervades — and if you can find another to share that with, even in small moments of appreciating a coincidence or laughing at something crossing your path or a meaningful conversation with a stranger, it is possible to glimpse the vast potential of reverence in the routine.
* * *
“You never get to know what didn’t happen, dude.” He smiled that know-it-all grin. “It’s like trying to measure something that was prevented – by definition you can’t tell if it worked.”
I pondered this. “Maybe,” I brilliantly retorted. That would show him.
“Exactly! It’s all one great big maybe. Go left, go right; sit down, stand up; stay put, move about. There’s no way to know which choice is better in any situation. You might miss the bus and be late for work and lose your job, but who’s to say that bus wouldn’t have crashed with you on it. That job you lost is a known quantity so it has a lot of gravity in your timeline, but freed from it you can explore new prospects. No guarantees, of course, but a world of more maybes is good.”
His logic circles always bothered me, but maybe he was right. Maybe! “So why do anything if we can’t really know if anything is better than anything else?” Now I’ve got him, I thought.
“Because the knowing isn’t the point, my friend; it’s the doing. And being stuck pursuing certainty is a losing proposition. Just look at what the world has turned into, based on routines and predictability.”
I guess he had a point. The fact that maybe things could be better was preferable to being sure that they won’t if we just stay the course on the road to oblivion. Still, all of this felt unsettling, too random…
“It isn’t random,” he said, curiously. “It’s being comfortable with humility and wonder.” That smile again.
* * *
To paraphrase Pete Townshend: “Meet the new story — same as the old story.” In the musical version of this idea, the cautionary tale laid bare by The Who was about revolutions seeming like they’ll bring profound change, only to find that leaders may be replaced but the system goes on much as it had before. A new captain might not save the Titanic.
Yet a new story might — especially if it’s an old one. For me, it’s back to where this all started, with the metaphorical Matrix. The new story I want to live into is a time-tested one, dating to antiquity, one that has framed our humanoid existence for the vast majority of our time on this planet, a story still practiced widely by many people around the world but steadily impinged upon by forces of colonialism and homogenization. It’s a story we forget at our peril.
You know it. By heart. Literally. It’s in us. We are that story. Every molecule of our beings and neural connection in our brains is that old-new story. It’s how the cosmos came to be and self-perpetuates. It’s the basic organizing principle of time and space. I think I keep trying to retell the same story in different contexts with varying concepts and diminishing success! But I’ll try again anyway:
Troubles wash over us, even as rising waters imperil our ability to remain in place. We commit ourselves to navigating the journey ahead with gratitude, dignity, and humility. Where there once was anger, sadness, disappointment, and disillusionment, we now find respect, equanimity, grounded hope, and empowerment. We agree to live within the embrace of this world, not in spite of it or above it, to recognize our place in the web of connections and our responsibility to the good of the whole. We will move from seeing the world through a lens of commodities, to a recognition of our mutual reliance on resources, to appreciating the blessings of creation — and the joys of co-creation — as gifts. We consciously choose to move forward with acceptance and ingenuity in equal parts, reweaving the threads of our shared origins and unique histories, looking toward the horizon with wonder and a commitment to learn. We will strive to thrive by enabling all that is around us to do so as well.
* * *
“I don’t understand…”
“Exactly. That’s the whole point.”
“But if I don’t know, how can I do anything?”
“Well, you’re doing something right now — speaking — so there’s that.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t thinking about things, just saying whatever came to mind.”
“So what if you let that same process guide you in other aspects of life?”
“You mean, like just walking without knowing where I’m going?”
“That’s one example, a good one. How about cooking without a recipe? Writing a story without knowing the ending? Planting seeds but not being sure what will grow?”
“Okay, I get it, sort of … you’re talking about using intuition and imagination, right? Having faith?”
“Yes, but also your logical mind too — just not letting that part set limits.”
“What do you mean, set limits?”
“Well, sometimes when we think we know something, we assume that there’s nothing new to discover, like the idea that wherever we live is boring and nothing interesting ever happens there. Our knowledge can limit our sense of wonder.”
“Right, I see … it’s good to know things, but that’s only the beginning, not the end.”
“Absolutely! Knowledge should be a floor but never a ceiling, if that makes sense?”
“Yes, yes it does. I get it now. Awareness without expectation. Belief without imposition. Holding on and letting go. Being present for the process, showing up, enjoying the ride…”
“Yeessss … I see that you’ve learned something over the past few weeks!”
“Um, I guess, but I don’t even….”
“Now let all of that go. Unlearn it, then relearn it, and keep going. The next time through the cycle will be similar in some ways, and radically different in others. They call this ‘episodic learning’ or ‘lifelong education’ — an essential tool for these times.”
“I’m grateful for your guidance and support. Just one question: who are you?”
“Everyone. No one. Your community. Your conscience. The singer and the song –“
“Hmph, now you’re just showing off, being clever and mysterious…”
“Yep, no extra charge for that!”
* * *
So I wrote a story about the next paradigm, but it was in a language that no one could understand. Obviously. So I rewrote it in understandable terms, but it turned into a story about this paradigm rather than the next. And people read it, and liked it, and they made a TV series based on it, and there were t-shirts and lunch boxes and Reddit groups and action figures. Some thought it was subversive while others thought it was just funny. It made a lot of money and won awards. It changed the world but only in the way that changing clothes or getting a new hairstyle changes anything. People felt better from it but the world continued expiring as it had before. So goes that story.
Anyway, it’s time to bid farewell but I wanted to leave you with something to remember me by. It’s the original version of my story, the one that nobody could understand. It won’t mean anything to you either — like trying to describe a new color no one has ever seen before. Do as you wish with it, frame it or pass it on or set it ablaze. Try to read it if you want, even though it’s gibberish. Write your own story as inspired by it. Make up words and places and fantastical predictions. Bend the laws of reality and imagine the unimaginable. Never be limited by what is possible today. Let others obsess about being realistic — go and be surrealistic. And don’t worry: someday the world will catch up to your vision, and by then it will seem self-evident, simplistic even…
Good! Bye 🙂
Note: These snippets were just “written” (loosely speaking) during a three-week immersive community workshop on stories and storytelling. A few entries in, I realized that I was coming back to similar (i.e., my usual) themes, and that the individual pieces perhaps were from different space/timelines but were all rowing in the same direction: seeing, believing, translating, reimagining, refusing to accept what merely is, longing for what might yet be…. Like I said, the (un)usual!