By Glenn Campbell
In the movie The Matrix, we discover that life as we know it is a computer generated virtual reality illusion. The "real" reality is something much bleaker and more desperate, where a few escaped humans are fighting an oppressive machine that is using people as an energy source. The illusion itself is called "the Matrix," and once you escape from it, you can never go back, at least with the same naive perceptions.
This is the perfect metaphor for life as we know it. Most of us are still living in the Matrix, being fed soothing illusions by our social environment and mass media. The Matrix gives us distorted information about life and tries to make us believe that the world is happy place. When we break out of the Matrix, we see a much darker universe where hardly anything is going right. Once we see our delusions for what they are, it is hard to go back to believing in them.
The true requirements of life are simple: food, health, self-regulation and meaningful interaction with others. The social Matrix we are living in piles all sorts of useless products on top of this, like fashion that doesn't make you attractive, entertainment that doesn't entertain, and illusions of a perfect life that can never be attained. The Matrix sets you up with goals and assumptions that may be entirely out of line with how the world really works and what really makes you happy.
All of this serves the needs of the machine but not necessarily our own needs.
It serves the goals of the machine to create an illusion of normative happiness. Social and Capitalist forces want you to believe that life is basically good and wholesome, with only a few minor problems, like underarm odor and an absence of full-flavored taste in your beer or cigarettes. Lo and behold, most of the problems identified by the machine can be solved by purchasing the right product: a new car, perhaps, or even a religion.
The Matrix is a very trivial place, obsessed with insignificant things like sports, sitcoms and the scandals of celebrities. The Matrix gives us Martha Stewart, fly fishing and a million different ways you can waste time before you die. The Matrix encourages you to fiddle while Rome burns.
If you aren't personally happy, then it must be your fault. You must not have purchased the right product. The illusion of normative happiness make us feel even worse when misfortune befalls us. "This isn't supposed to happen," we say, yet tragedy does happen, and nothing in the Matrix has prepared us for it. When you suffer, you usually have to do it alone, because no one else within the matrix has been trained to deal with it.
If we encounter a problem that isn't readily solvable, like mental illness, crime or world hunger, the Matrix tell us that this is an anomaly. Ninety-nine percent of life is fine, we think; it is only this one percent that doesn't seem to working out so well.
Naturally, we start looking around for some sort of simple product to solve that nagging one percent. Maybe we need more Capitalism to solve the world hunger problem, and maybe we should to put a gun into every citizen's hand to take care of crime. Life is happy, you understand, and all that is bothering us is a few solvable problems.
Once you break out of the Matrix, you see the opposite: Ninety-nine percent of the world is painful and desperate, wasting human resources on a huge scale. There are only a few little islands of happiness, where people are working well with each other and individual potential is close to being achieved. Everyone else is enslaved.
We don't take much notice of the true bleakness of the world because routine tragedy doesn't get much press. Pessimism doesn't sell commercial products, only false optimism does. Even our parents gave us sugar-coated fairy tales about the world because it was much easier to raise us that way. People who are fed a steady stream of pleasant delusions and simplistic goals are easier to manage. It is like giving them drugs to keep them subdued.
In the real world, human lives are wasted on a massive, production scale. Nearly every baby starts out with great promise, but very few adults fulfill it. Somewhere between infancy and adulthood, the spirit and creativity of most people on Earth are crushed. Instead of attaining something approaching their potential, most people are turned into Soylent Green—dumb food for other people.
You don't have to go to industrial China to find broken, exploited and wasted humanity. It is all around us. Maybe we are one of the wasted. Maybe we are not achieving our own potential because of the social situation we have found ourselves in or because of our own unachievable delusions of what life should be.
Given the option, which are we going to seek: real internal satisfaction based on our own experience or the product-based delusion of satisfaction as fed to us by the machine? Usually, the machine wins.
Breaking out of the Matrix, we discover that the problems of the world are massive and essentially unsolvable, at least by any power that we personally possess. Most people, even close to us, are living lives of either acute pain, numbing servitude or mindless delusion.
The family next door, we may know full well, is psychologically abusing their child and will turn him into a screwed up adult, but we may also recognize that there is little we can do about it. There is little we can do about most of the suffering of the world, because there is so much of it and our own powers are so limited.
Breaking out of the Matrix means seeing, for the first time, all of the rich, polychromatic suffering of the world and not flinching from it. This planet is a horrible place, and we have landed in the middle of it. It is like the science fiction story about the psychic who can read people's minds but can't turn it off. He feels all of the suffering of millions and often wishes that he didn't have that power.
Seeing all of the pain of the world doesn't mean you have to go mad. It just requires a different perspective. If there is far more suffering than you can do anything about, this can actually be liberating.
When you were locked in the Matrix and you saw on TV that some family or group was suffering, you felt compelled to help, because that suffering was seen as an unusual event—a disruption of your happy view of the world.
If you now recognize that suffering is everywhere, most of it never seen on TV, then you also have to realize that you can't address all of it. You have to be selective and intelligent in the way that you help and not just blindly donate to the number on your screen.
Breaking out of the Matrix lifts a veil from your eyes and gives you vision. You can now recognize social delusions for what they are: sales messages to serve the needs of others. You can now see that tragedy is everywhere and that there is little you can do about most of it, so you help where you can and sleep comfortably when you can't.
Without your delusions, you see that your own place in the world is very weak and fragile. All you really have is a few little slivers of discretion. With them, you can try to build your own tentative happiness and rescue that tiny portion of the world that you have some control over.