This Is Not the Real World

Those who say it is are selling something.

Photo by Greg Nunes on Unsplash

“Why buy when you can lease?”

The salesman smiles as he talks. He talks a lot. It’s the name of the game, to keep making noise so that your thoughts trip over his clutching words. He slides a pen out of his pocket and turns over the crumpled sheet of paper in his hand.

“Look,” he smiles. “It’s like this. You’re paying, what, $500 a month right now? If you trade your truck in, you can have this year’s model for $379. You’ll be paying less for a newer vehicle.”

“For seven more years.”

“You’re not going to keep the truck for seven years.” His smile is wider now, toothier, as he fingers the greasy edge of his hold card. “You take it for what, a couple of years? Then you bring it back and trade it for a new one.”

Don’t be deceived.

This is how it all works now. Cars, houses, cell phones; you’re not meant to own anything. The sales office learned long ago that it’s foolish to sell a person an item when you can rent it to them forever.

A lifetime of small monthly payments is a lot more valuable than one big chunk. It’s the morality of the mosquito. Don’t take too much, and you’ll be able to feed forever.

This is how the system works, and there’s no one person or even group of people to blame for it. It grew organically out of us the way an egg grows naturally out of the goose.

And it has teeth all the way down. A great gaping Sarlacc pit designed to keep you just about alive while it digests you for a thousand years.

Everything that happens, happens inside your head.

The bright bar of light dancing on the colorless water, an inverted sun cupped at the bottom of the lake, is there at the back of your head where the optic nerves find their delicate roots. And the chirping of a squirrel, its furtive wrestling among last autumn’s dry leaves, occurs in the same airless space inside your skull.

The mountains, dark and mysterious as they rise in cloud-wreathed silence behind the sun, spring instantly toward the sky when you look at them, and vanish as you turn your head back to the page.

This is entry-level stuff. The kind of simplistic solipsism that a just-slightly-smarter-than-average child adopts because he thinks it makes him special. All we can really know is the self, because all means of knowing the world are mediated through our senses.

The void behind your eyes is as invisible to me as the gloom of the bottom of the lake. Or the distant sea this water will run to and be reborn as rain.

Maybe so. But the head that the world is inside is itself inside the world. And every point of almost unbearable light that dances off the water is an identical reflection of the center of the sun.

Back when people still sent letters, they might arrive full of useless news after the sender had passed away, the censored word stinking of poison gas. Some of the stars we gawk at, when we can bear to tear ourselves away from our screens, are already dead.

Not everything has to serve a purpose.

Who would want to live in a mercantile world where a stick is just a stick and bumblebees can’t fly? But there’s little point in philosophy that only leaves us scratching our heads.

Maybe you made all of this up, and you really are a lonely and demented god entertaining yourself with fantasies at the center of an incalculable void. If that’s true, you’re hiding it from yourself so well that for all meaningful purposes, it isn’t true. The choice is stark: either live as though the world exists, or don’t live at all.

The Spring is a thing that is bigger than you.

Just like the mountains. Just like the lake. All of them tiny compared to a glowering and gas-shrouded nebula.

And your toenail is an endless universe to the fungus that feeds on it. We can play these games all day, shifting perspectives and peering down both ends of the telescope, and it won’t get us anywhere better than here.

So let’s say, just for fun, that you invented this day. Do it again.

See with me the way the shifting sun picks out the very tips of the placid waves. Look at the bald spot between the shoulders of the mountain across the water, where the snow still clings on.

Listen to the pillow talk between the water on the shore, all L sounds and S sounds and affectionate clauses in a language it seems you could learn. Feel the sun on your skin as the promise of summer that it is, as though the rivers will always run and the trees will never stop growing.

There. And now that you created it, in all its heart-softening tranquility — because this is something that you, the reader, do, not me — banish it. Tear down the mountains. Strike the set. Shut those chattering beaks. This is getting you nowhere.

Back to the real world.

That’s what people said to me when I finally came home after two glorious years of travel. Two years of endless summer, with the ancient sun gilding my hair and turning my arms brown.

I know what they meant. You can’t just do what you want in life, they say. You can’t just toss it all aside and laze around in the sun. Not forever. Someday, somehow, your existence has to be paid for.

It’s startling to see how deeply these ideas have sunk their yellow fangs into us. We live the way we do because of the way our parents lived — either in emulation or rejection.

We need to eat, and we don’t know what that means anymore. Our food comes bloodless and plastic-wrapped from the shadowless hell at the grocery store, so that we forget what eating is. The universe, in one or another of its manifestations, moving through us, becoming us, rebuilding us. Some people still pray before they eat. Their gods may be fanciful, but the idea isn’t a bad one.

We’re supposed to think, boys and girls, that the real world is the one we pay rent on. The one where we chase numbers that are never enough, that never can be enough. The one where we perform meaningless tasks for fake wealth that we can trade for worthless garbage.

Not only is this not real, but it’s not even a pleasant illusion. It’s a cheap and hollow sham.

And all the while, the really real world, the rocks and the sun and the trees and the lake, is all around us. A world that wasn’t made for us, but one that we grew out of. As natural and inevitable as rain running downhill.

In the forest, at the lake, on the shores of the ocean, you’ll find at last the really real world. And when you do, you’ll realize just how fake and false and futile everything else is.

Written by

Novelist. Essayist. Former entomologist. Now a full-time writer exploring travel, art, philosophy, psychology, and science.

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