Popular Culture  •  August 20, 2014

The Reality Is the Devil We Know

In an episode of “This American Life”, I came across a discussion on how to talk to people with dementia or alzheimer’s. The conclusion was that things go pretty smoothly if you would just go along with their reality. So, if someone starts talking about flying monkeys outside the window, you would just say it’s still early in the season for flying monkeys.

The reason why most people do not feel comfortable doing this is because they end up feeling like they are teasing. They think it’s mean-spirited. I think I would be pretty good at this.

Most of us are scared of losing touch with the reality because the cohesiveness, consistency, and predictability of the reality is what allow us to communicate with one another and get things done together. It’s hard to survive as social creatures if we cannot agree on how things work at the basic level. Believing in the reality, therefore, becomes a matter of life and death. It makes perfect sense to fear the loss of reality. Our survival instinct alone would make sure that we stick to the script. We do not have an objective, take-it-or-leave-it kind of relationship with the reality. We are desperately attached to it.

Someone with dementia no longer cares about that script. Practically speaking, this is disastrous, but spiritually, as well as intellectually speaking, I think it would be liberating. I would actually love to have an in-depth conversation about flying monkeys. I’d be curious to know where that would lead us. This is a sort of discussion most of us would not have. In fact, we are not capable of having it. Most of us would drop it after 10 minutes, and say it feels silly. That feeling too, I think, is coming from fear. We’ve been trained to stick to the script of the reality for so long that deviating from it for even 10 minutes makes us uncomfortable.

I was able to do this to some degree with my daughter when she was younger, like talking about Santa and tooth fairies rather seriously. My mind would dig deep into the logistical issues around what they do. Now, when I do that with her, she just think I’m teasing her, so she wouldn’t engage.

Deep down, I think we all secretly want to be liberated from the reality, but are too afraid to let it happen. This is what we perceive as “magical” in children. Talking about God is rarely interesting to me, not because there is anything wrong with the topic, but because most people actually try to stick to the script of the reality. Some would go as far as to use science to back up their religious arguments. In other words, even in talking about God, they are too scared to let go of the reality. It would be more interesting to me to talk about God that is not grounded in reality. It’s teasing only if you think you are leading someone astray, to somewhere they should not go. The negative impression of that place is coming from our fear of leaving the reality. We desperately cling to it.

The reality is just a convenient script. It lets us do amazing things together, but if we are not capable of letting go of it, we wouldn’t be able to see the reality for what it is either. We would just be living in a fantasy land called “the reality”.