God is real.
I thought that might get your attention. Now I’ll explain what I actually mean by that.
Reality is a difficult concept to get your head around. What do we mean when we say that something is ‘real’? At first glance it seems obvious. You may say that the sun is real. Why? Because you can see it, and you wouldn’t be alive for very long if it wasn’t there. You may say that the phone – or perhaps laptop or tablet – that you’re reading this on is real, because you can feel it in your hands and physically interact with it. You would probably say that you are real, otherwise who is it that’s reading these words?
Other things aren’t so easy to contain within the concept of physical reality. Is love real? How about good and evil? Is it possible to say that our dreams are real?
A while back, I was reading through the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads, and was particularly struck by the following line: ‘Dreams are real as long as they last. Can we say more of life?’
When I was at university, I would often arrive at breakfast eager to tell my friends of the latest chapter in my dream life. I also became aware of the continued impact that some dreams had throughout the day. If someone that I knew made a cameo in my mind’s unconscious play, their actions would strongly influence how I felt towards them in the morning. Sometimes a close friend would betray me, and I’d wake up with an unjustified bitterness towards them. Other times, someone who I wasn’t that well acquainted with in the waking world would appear in my dream as a trusted companion in some far-flung adventure, and I would find myself confused the following day as to how well I actually knew them.
At times, it’s not necessarily the characters within your dreams which lead to confusion, but the feelings which the dreams evoke. If your night-time narrative was laced with horror or tragedy, despite the relief you feel as you wake up, the gloom may cling to you.
Dreams feel so real when you’re within them that their effects bleed into your waking life, tearing down your internal grasp of reality.
While perhaps less ancient and revered than the Upanishads, the Harry Potter series presents this idea beautifully in one particular scene. In the final book, Harry falls victim to the avada kedavra killing curse and finds himself in a dream-like version of King’s Cross station, where he would usually board the train to Hogwarts. While there, he spends time in conversation with his former headmaster, Dumbledore, who had previously been killed (I apologise for the spoiler, but if you’ve not yet read the books or seen the films, that’s on you). Towards the end of the conversation, Harry asks, ‘Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?’ To which Dumbledore responds, ‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’
You may have responded to my earlier question about the reality of the sun by pointing out that it doesn’t just exist inside our heads; even if we didn’t exist, the sun would still be there. This is true, and yet we nonetheless experience its reality within our minds. It’s through the brain’s interpretation of our senses that we construct reality around us, and sometimes we do this differently to one another.
In a recent interview, Mindy Kaling expressed the isolation and insecurity she felt in her early days on the writing staff for The Office, the only woman in what appeared to be a boys’ club. In her mind, she remained largely silent in the writers’ room, yet when she expressed this recently to her colleagues, they remembered a different story: they recall that she would regularly express her opinions with confidence. The same events were experienced by all, yet they were perceived entirely differently. How often have you had a conversation with a friend only to find out later that you took away very different – and sometimes contradictory – messages from your interaction?
It’s through the brain’s interpretation of our senses that we construct reality around us, and sometimes we do this differently to one another.
It may be that in some cases, one person was clearly right and the other wrong: a word may have been misheard, or someone may have intended to say something and yet never verbalized their thoughts. Yet on other occasions it is not so clear, and the difference in people’s interpretations may be less to do with the actual words spoken, and more to do with the narrative within their heads. Turning to another Eastern tradition, I found the following story from the Taoist Lieh-Tzu to perfectly capture the impact of our inner narratives:
A man noticed that his axe was missing. Then he saw his neighbour’s son pass by. The boy looked like a thief, walked like a thief, behaved like a thief. Later that day, the man found his axe where he had left it the day before. The next time he saw the neighbour’s son, the boy looked, walked and behaved like an honest, ordinary boy.
We can presume that the boy behaved no differently on the second occasion, and yet to the man’s mind, he had changed radically.
There are often times that I become anxious in social contexts. I was made aware of a particularly unhelpful mindset I’d adopted wherein I assume that people don’t like me unless I’m given a good reason to believe otherwise. The world is a far less friendly place when viewed through this lens; resting faces become judgmental stares, and inaudibly whispered words sound an awful lot like criticisms about you. When I identified that this had become a default mental state, I gave myself the challenge to turn it around and assume that people did like me, and it’s a wonder how differently everyone appears after that. Not only do you start to think more positively, but the way you act reflects this positivity, and people respond to these actions in turn. Our internal narrative becomes our external reality.
It’s not difficult to see how this applies to religious narratives, and prayer supplies a good example. Suppose someone is having a difficult time applying for a job, making little progress over several months. They then pray for success in an application, and the following day are offered an interview. They are likely to attribute this interview offer to divine agency; they prayed, and God intervened. However, another person may have experienced the exact same situation but without praying. Upon receiving the offer, they would be more likely to believe that it was due to the favour of the hiring manager rather than God. Same results, different story.
The same idea could be applied to healing: two people are ill in hospital, both make an unlikely recovery, but one had been prayed for the previous day while the other had not. The person who had not been prayed for would thank the medical staff for their work, the person who had been prayed for may well offer thanks to God instead (or at least thank both if they’re polite). God is real to this person, because in their internal narrative he was ultimately responsible for their healing.
I’d like to be clear that I’m not endorsing a view in which reality is solely defined by our narratives. In the cases above, it may be theoretically possible to conclude that one person was wrong in who they attributed the healing to, while the other was right. Nonetheless, in practice there is often no objective way to decide between them, and so a person will interpret events according to their prior understanding of reality.
We like to think that our worldview is informed by external phenomena; we’re rational beings, and so we examine evidence and arrive at reliable conclusions about the world. I’m not convinced. It seems to me that the process is a little more of a two-way street: yes, we are influenced by what we see around us, and yet how we perceive it is in turn influenced by how we already understand about the world.
I believe it goes further than this, however. It is not only a matter of influence and interpretation, but also of creation; we can attempt to write our own narrative and live within it.
On the recommendation of a friend, I’ve been reading through Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, in which he examines Jesus’ well-known parable through the lens of Rembrandt’s painting. In the parable, the younger of two brothers scandalously asks to receive his father’s inheritance early, only to later squander it all through lavish activities. He eventually returns sheepishly to his household and is met by the warm embrace of his father, who throws a party in his honour. This takes place much to the disdain of the older brother who had spent his years working tirelessly and felt as though he received nothing in turn.
As Nouwen reflects on the character of the older brother, he recognizes his own desire to overcome a similar internal narrative of insecurity and rejection:
As long as I doubt that I am worth finding and put myself down as less loved than my younger brothers and sisters, I cannot be found. I have to keep saying to myself, “God is looking for you. He will go anywhere to find you. He loves you, he wants you home, he cannot rest until he has you with him.”
He then describes the ‘dark’ voice which speaks to the contrary. He explains that ‘at times this dark voice is so strong that I need enormous spiritual energy to trust that the Father wants me home as much as the younger son.’
I must confess, while I believe Nouwen offers valuable insight and reflections on human nature, parts of his story draw me back to a depressing time in my Christian past in which I would try to wish God into existence. Despite experiencing little to suggest the presence of a God who knew me and loved me, I nonetheless weaved such a character into my narrative as a comfort, and to fit in with those around me who appeared to live in that story. After a while I wondered whether I was simply trying too hard to make it work.
Some people manage it, though.
When I’ve listened to dialogues between believers and non-believers on the question of suffering, the Christian will sometimes suggest that suffering is far easier to bear if you believe that it serves a purpose and will ultimately be redeemed in a future existence. They express how they prefer this view to the narrative which writes suffering off as the result of chance events taking part in an apathetic universe. I’m not sure I agree with this dichotomy, as the theistic story involves the troubling idea that God is at least permitting such suffering, if not its active cause. And by the other account, while the universe may not care about an individual’s suffering, their community does, and that offers some tangible comfort.
Nonetheless, even if I find there to be difficulties within the theistic view, I see value in finding comfort through inhabiting a particular story.
It is not only a matter of influence and interpretation, but also of creation; we can attempt to write our own narrative and live within it.
The trouble with this is that our narratives only hold power so long as we believe that they are true. In the same way that we cannot choose to believe something – but are rather compelled into belief – we must also recognize the limitations of our ability to actively create our story. It’s not impossible, but neither is it straight-forward.
Ever distracted as I am, I was scrolling through Instagram as I wrote this, and came across a post from the psychologist, Dr. Nicole LePera, explaining the practice of visualization. It captures the idea of how our mind informs our perception of reality. While I recognize in what she writes the religious tendencies I once held to, the focus of the post is on how we can use visualization in a positive way. I’m going to quote her in full below because I think it’s brilliant:
If you close your mind and picture sucking on a lemon, your body will respond. The mind does not know the difference between a ‘real’ event and what’s imagined. We can use this to our advantage. We can use our most powerful asset (the mind) to create new emotional states and life experiences.
If we continue to practice, the subconscious mind (the mind beyond our consciousness) begins to filter in new data that matches what we’ve been mentally rehearsing. You may have experienced this if you’ve been thinking about a [particular] car. Suddenly, you see that car everywhere. The reality is that car has always been there. Your focus on the car allowed the subconscious mind to filter the car into awareness.
Where our attention goes is always confirmed in our external environment. We “see” what we believe to be true.
I’ve become increasingly aware of just how complicated our minds are. Not only have I realized the impact that my inner narrative had on reinforcing my past beliefs, I now recognize the power that it has to inform my ongoing reality. While it may not be an easy practice, perhaps the positive impact of choosing to live within a certain story is worth the effort.
God was once real for me, for others he remains real.
I’m just wondering if there’s a better story.