There is a theory that we are living in a simulation, which is to say that someone or something of greater power and intelligence than us is pulling the strings. Additional possibilities include parallel universes, infinitely regressing turtles supporting the world on their backs, wormholes, meaninglessness, meaning, reincarnation, oblivion, flat earths, round earths, life on Mars, etc. Movies like The Matrix popularized the idea that we are semi-willing participants in a simulation, pawns of curious demigods who hold us at arm’s length while watching us ruin the one world we’ve been given.
I have had plenty of experiences which suggest this may be true. From obscene coincidences like discussing playing Supertramp’s 1979 hit Goodbye Stranger on a jukebox in Bellingham, Washington with a perfect stranger, lamenting that the only cash I had was a two dollar bill I couldn’t part with, only to have another stranger walk up to us and say, “Goodbye Stranger is coming up next,” to tests of nerve and faith that seem so twisted that randomness is not a sufficient explanation.
At times, one’s individual experience is a unique cruelty. What may objectively appear well-off may subjectively feel like a very personal version of hell. This widens the schism of misunderstanding, because we feel as though we have no right to complain, all while the walls crumble around us. And if we do express how we feel, we are viewed differently, which creates a Cold War of unspoken sorrows. This self-imposed prison suggests that there may even be multiple simulations, each one testing a different set of parameters.
It seems at times that the line between a dream come true and living in a nightmare is razor-thin. The dreamier something is, the greater the sting when it doesn’t live up to expectations, or when it is coldly yanked from us. Does this teach us not to dream, or not to feel as much of anything? For all the advancements our society has made, the world still rewards those who can separate their conscience from their actions. Close the deal, shoot the wounded, put profit before people. There is not a visible cosmic arbiter of justice and this means only that one’s ingrained sense of right and wrong is a hindrance in the earthly realm.
Feelings make it harder to win in the simulation. Commitment to ideals may be the thing that most separates humans from animals, and some animals from humans. Will we make sacrifices for things we believe in? Will we be like the duck who risks freezing to death in order to stay at a frozen pond where its monogamous partner is trapped in the ice, or will we be like the turkey which coolly kills its wounded brood mate in order to reduce the group’s chances of being attacked by an opportunistic predator?
Maybe our problem is that we will be neither, or that we are both. Our society favors self-promotion, rewards the greedy individual while also valuing the individual to the detriment of the collective. Ultimately, we are left to wonder—what do we stand for?
This is the question which haunts the soul, leaves us at war with the simulation. The soul that yearns to express itself creatively must decide if years of misery is worth an unguaranteed artistic satisfaction. The soul that believes in the sanctity of others must hope that the universe somehow cares, even after its cruelty extinguishes them in an unfeeling blink.
The reason movies like The Matrix and Saw capture the imagination and became series with multiple installments is because we are perversely fascinated with the idea that we may actually get to make choices of cosmic importance. Do you take the red pill or the blue one? Do you gouge out a friend’s eye to get the key that will free your entire group from a room before all of you are crushed by some other cruel mechanism? Do we commit to a dream at all costs, or do we slowly accept the palliative effects of comfort, money, companionship? Do we believe in eternal goodness in spite of endless evidence to the contrary, or do we accept that everything is fleeting and strive ceaselessly to find the beauty in it all? Can one person genuinely do both?
Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This is one of those sentences that contains more truth, more succinctly, than anything I could ever hope to say. If one could sustain their sense of uniquely tortured artist and genuinely content family person, could see the forest and the trees in equal focus, they would be a genius.
If we are up against a simulation, then all we can do is our best. And if we are not, then all we can do is our best. Every passing day proves that if we don’t give up, we may reach the next fork in the road. For all the monotony of the many, there are those beautiful few which offer us a choice, which can sustain a lifetime with their richness. Could it be that one memorable walk in the mountains sustains me through months of drudgery, that a few conversations in the ever-receding past will inspire the ever-rushing future? Are entire lives defined by what almost was?