Friday, February 15, 2008

Why didn't I take the blue pill?

Why didn’t I take the blue pill?

I don’t know how many times I’ve asked myself that question –or some variation thereof –over the past few years. I expect I will ask it even more often in the years to come as the full implications of our situation begin to show and reality hits hard and heavy. For those who aren’t familiar with the reference, it comes from a scene in the Matrix wherein Morpheus offers Neo a choice between two pills, and he has to take one. If he takes the blue pill, the adventure is over and he wakes up none the worse for it. If, however, he chooses the red pill, then things will really get interesting. (Obviously, he chooses the red.)

This situation is repeated thousands, if not millions, of times throughout mythology, literature, and history. The details and the participants vary infinitely, but the base of the situation remains the same: that is, someone must make a choice between changing, opening their eyes, or leaving on an adventure, and keeping things the way they are. The one offering the choice might be another person, circumstance, or (especially in myths) something of the Divine. In these stories the protagonist always chooses to go, to take the assignment, to swallow the red pill. Frodo accepts the ring from his uncle; Luke Skywalker goes off with Ben Kenobi; the young high school kid joins the army. Otherwise, things wouldn’t be interesting and you wouldn’t have a story.

These situations happen in real life as well. In fact, they are so common that every person has several of them in their life. We usually refer to these as turning points, or forks in the road. The fate of the world usually doesn’t hang in the balance, but the course of our lives certainly does. Many of these choices radically alter the path we will take. Do you go out with Betty or don’t you? Do you take that archaeology class? What about that summer internship in South America? Joining little league baseball? As common as these things are, a person’s entire life revolves on the outcome. Some have more import than others: what job to take, where to live, who to marry.

One of the defining moments of my life was definitely the decision to look in-depth at our environmental problems, at climate change, and at Peak Oil. I definitely took the red pill on that one. And sometimes, I want to kick myself in the pants for it. Not because I’m sorry I did it, or because I want to take it back. But because it is so damn difficult to know.

I’m sure you’ve felt it. The roiling sensation in your gut when you read that the plastic garbage pit in the Pacific Ocean is now the size of the entire continental U.S. The faint nausea when the full implications of the latest climate change projections kick in. The awful sense of foreboding that comes upon reading that sea levels are now rising at an inch a year. The panic, the denial, the confusion, the horror, that comes from realizing the full weight of what we’ve done to the planet and ourselves –and the fear of the consequences. Your emotions might be slightly different, but I bet you’ve felt something like these.

It is so very, very difficult to know these kind of things. Especially when everyone around you is either clueless or in denial. I look at these people I see everywhere and I shake my head. How different my life would be if I had never looked into these things! I could be just like them –oblivious, happy, blissfully in denial, just going about everyday life without feeling like my head is about to explode. Sometimes I feel like a time traveler from the future and I’m stuck in a city that’s about to be destroyed. I’m torn between trying to warn people –and running for the hills to save my own a**.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m glad I know. I wouldn’t put the genie back in the bottle even if I could. I’m one of those people who would rather know the worst and face things head on than be surprised or deny the truth. But it is a very, very hard burden to bear. Everywhere I turn I am pressure to conform, to get back into line, to deny the truth of what I know to be fact. These pressures come from many sources: society itself, the government, the media, my family and friends, even the longing of my own inner heart. I am as susceptible as anyone else to desires for the things possible in our society –fancy clothes, trips to Europe, nice furnishings, tropical fruit, and on and on. I am sure that everyone who reads this has felt these same pressures.

What is the best way to deal with these pressures? Here’s a list that I think will come in handy.

1.) Turn off the TV, the radio, and other forms of mass media. Limit how much you allow yourself per day or week. These are the biggest sources of misinformation, pressure to conform, and pressure to consume that you will encounter. That’s what advertisements and product placements (not to mention the evening news) are designed to do. Besides, you can’t envy the 10,000 square foot McMansions on the sitcoms if you don’t see them and everyone around you has ordinary houses.

2.) Stay away from the malls, and when you go to the store take a list, stick to it, and get out as fast as you can –avoiding everything you possibly can. The longer you’re in there and the more of the store you see, the more likely you are to get suckered into extra stuff.

3.) Don’t argue with your family and friends. Sure, you want them to agree with you, but arguing may cause a whole lot more harm than good. You might alienate them, and that’s the last thing you want to do. Instead, change your own life slowly, and when they ask, explain to them what you are doing and why. Go slowly. Be gentle. Leave copies of articles on the kitchen table for your wife to read. Coming to terms with the problems in the world is like coming to terms with your own death or that of a loved one –in fact, the process is the same. Look up Elizabeth Kubler Ross for more info. It is a grieving process in a lot of ways –only the death is that of a culture, a worldview, a civilization, even the future you thought you and your family had. That’s why it’s so hard to deal with. For those with children it is even worse, particularly if the children are young. We are hard wired to protect our kids and there is no way to protect them entirely from this. This is why so many parents (in my experience, particularly mothers) are so much more susceptible to remaining in denial.

4.) Take care of yourself. Eat right. Exercise. You’ll be surprised how much this helps.

5.) This is most important –Change your life. For your own health and sanity, do this. You can’t go on as you were after discovering these things. You have to start making changes. The reasoning behind this has to do with a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. Humans have an intrinsic need for all our cognitions –our thoughts, beliefs, ideas, and actions –to match, or be in harmony. When this isn’t the case, we experience stress and a desire to reduce the disparity. This is known as cognitive dissonance. It can be extremely discomforting and stressful. In fact, it is impossible for someone to remain in this state for long. If you believe that flying is really bad for the environment but are flying every week, that will give rise to cognitive dissonance, and you will do one of three things: change your beliefs –from flying is awful to flying isn’t so bad; change your habits, and stop flying so much; or rationalize your behavior, such as ‘I have to fly for my job, and if I don’t do this someone else will.” The human mind can’t handle that kind of stress for long, so one of these three avenues will eventually be taken, and/or the stress will build to harmful levels. So how do you reduce it? As I said before, change your life. Even small changes will help –stop buying paper towels, plant a tomato bush, carpool, buy a smaller car. Your mind is screaming at you that it needs to be done anyway –so do it all ready.

On the whole, my life would be much easier right now if I’d taken the blue pill. I could be working as an engineer making nearly 60k a year and vacationing on a beach somewhere. I could have a lot less stress in my life. But, I’m glad I didn’t it. There’s no turning back once you’ve come this far. So, where’s the door out of the Matrix?

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