by Alan Fleming
I have foreseen my own death. Not directly, like some prophecy, but indirectly, through sense. I’ve been in a few pretty serious situations where death was possible, but I always knew that was not my time – that I don’t die like that. I don’t know when it will come, or even how, but I know that I’ll know when death is on my doorstep.
There is something completely reassuring about this sense. I imagine it offers me the same reassurance as a belief in God or some other after-life scenario offers other people. It keeps me calm in tense situations, allows me to think and act without panic. Like I said, reassuring.
Of course, it is all garbage. It is not real, my sense. I have no better insight into my future than a two-bit fortune-teller sitting in a tent at a carnival. I’ll die in my sleep one day, or be hit by a bus crossing the street, or a baby grand piano will fall from a low flying airplane, crash through my roof and land on my head. My death is unforeseeable and quite honestly, unimportant. Sure, some people will be upset, some will be amused and dare I say it, some overjoyed with my demise. But nothing will alter in your reality. Naturally, my reality will change. Somewhat dramatically I assume. I will shift from existing to not existing. That seems as drastic as it gets.
Well, OK, that is a little “self-pitying”, but the point is my reality may alter upon my death, and yours may shudder a little for a while, but it will settle back nicely into place, just without me in it. Your reality will go on. If you knew me well and I played a larger role in your life, that shudder may be an earthquake and your reality may have a new mountain range once it re-settles, but it will re-settle, and it will go on. That is the funny thing about reality; it is not real. That is, it is not universal for all. We don’t all have access to some stable external reality, all we have is access to our unique realities.
I’ve spent many a year thinking about the nature of reality.
As a kid it was all about the absurdity of it. My developing brain was trying to learn this new thing called logic and reasoning, and it struggled to put all the pieces together to explain reality. How could different people be in the same world and perceive different things? It’s absurd.
At university it was all about a philosophical perspective, and rational relations. Pages and pages of dry, dense and really quiet pointless text about the world in and of itself, and things being thus and so, and how can I stand in rational relations to the external world when everything is filtered through my conceptual understanding?
In my post-university, pre-teacher years, it was all about evidence and science. Yes, we all see the world uniquely, but we can triangulate! We can find third-party, possibly universal, evidence that demonstrates truth without reliance on our own potentially biased perspective.
That all changed when I started spending time with young people. Listening to their narratives; the joy, the sadness, the stress, the relief. I would listen closely to their stories, and I would see the biases. I would see their unique conceptual understandings trying to grapple with the absurdities of life.
I would listen patiently as they explained their complex theory of eye movements and half-frowns that clearly proved that their parents were secretly disappointed with their grades, even though their parents explicitly said the opposite. These complex theories, all trying to make sense of what my young mind would have agreed is an absurd reality. Of course, I corrected them.
I would tell them how great they are, I would show them third-party evidence, I would demonstrate clearly that their theory was wrong and that there was a universal reality that they simply needed to tap into. And they would ignore me and continue on with their imagined woes.
In desperation, I would quote Montaigne, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”
I would show them that their theories and beliefs are not real – they are made-up, fake news! They would smile reassuringly, then ignore me.
That is when my current stage of thinking about reality hit me. My developing brain was right. The world is absurd, but there is no making sense of it. There is no way to force reason and universalizability onto it. Third-party evidence is a just a bunch of people that think their reality is the universal one. There is no universal truth, there is just our individual realities.
When a young person tells me their parents are disappointed, I no longer try and help them by pointing out the contradictory evidence. Or by telling them “everything will be OK”, instead I ask them more questions about their reality. I try and see the world from their perspective. Try and see what they see and feel, and then I do the unthinkable; I agree with them. I agree with their reality, because their reality is as real as it gets for them.
The pain they feel from their parent’s rejection or disappointment is not eased by being told it is not real. It is eased through understanding, through support and through unconditional love.
It is eased by seeing the world from their perspective, and allowing them to see the world from mine. And through that sharing of reality, from a kind and loving place, maybe they can see things a little differently, and maybe I can too!
Surely that is true for all of us. There is no point arguing with another person’s reality. No point fighting, defaming or killing. Surely the answer is to do the opposite. To engage in their reality, to see the world through their eyes, to try and be them, and then to love and support them. To allow them a chance to see the world through your eyes, to engage in your reality. And who knows, through such engagement, maybe, just maybe, we can move closer to a commonly agreed upon reality. And even if that is not possible, maybe we can at least all agree on the complete absurdity of it all.
I have foreseen my own death. The concept is absurd, but the reassurance it provides is as real as it gets.