Getting Real

by rthieme on September 19, 1998

Islands in the Clickstream The themes of the digital world often involve fantasy and reality, illusions and truths, game-playing and “getting real.” In cyberspace, we traffic in abstractions, digital images and symbols that represent printed text – these words, for example – which represent writing which represents speech which represents thoughts and affective states. These images become as fixed in our memory as photographs once were “fixed” in a chemical solution. We mistake our representations for the “real thing,” the truth of our own experience, which devolves into an elusive, mythical being like a unicorn or the firebird.

Recent studies suggest that many complex organisms – not just human beings – represent the world to themselves. This is easier to visualize when we think of monkeys, for example, always using one sound to mean “danger in the sky” and another to mean “danger on the ground.” Our nervous systems seem to have evolved so we can present to ourselves those representations of streaming photonic data that we call “experience.” But when we live in a world that is more manufactured than remembered, a world that simulates simulations like computers making recursive calls, it becomes increasingly difficult to know whether we have really experienced something – or not.

And yet … at the highest level of our experience, we do know when we are being real.

I am often a guest on a local radio program hosted by Jean Feraca, an interviewer so accomplished after a dozen years of doing it ten hours a week for Wisconsin Public Radio that her crafty artfulness has dissolved into her technique. She creates a context effortlessly that invites her guests to be forthcoming, anticipating the directions of their thinking intuitively so she can lead them to the next paragraph.

Today we spoke about the “outing” of humanity by the digital world, the difficulty of engaging in civil discourse when we all know whatever there is to know about everybody else.

The presupposition of the conversation was, of course, the President’s recent humbling. Now, separate from the details of the situation, some people hate our American President the way others hated Roosevelt or Nixon, with a lacerating visceral rage. One caller railed at his improprieties and demanded punishment. “Don’t you think,” he said, “there should be consequences for this kind of behavior?”

It seems to be the nature of cause-and-effect in the moral domain that there ARE consequences whether I think there ought to be or not, of which the President’s prolonged ordeal is one obvious example. Bill Clinton is reaping a whirlwind and his life is soaked with the anxious perspiration of public humiliation. But the caller wanted more. He wanted blood.

Now, I was immersed for years in people’s lives at a deep, intimate level as a parish priest, and I learned that we judge and vilify most the things we have done or think of doing. We “whip the whore,” as Shakespeare said, while lusting for her body. And when we do, our self-righteous anger has a tone of voice that is unmistakable.

When we stop attacking, however, and tell the truth about ourselves instead, the tone of voice changes. It becomes softer … more self-effacing, more … real.

All I could ask was, what in the world had the caller done? what real or imagined guilt fueled his pitiless fury?

I didn’t expect a confession on the air. But there might have been a pause. There might have been that blessed hesitation that discloses that we have become conscious of our own history in a way that tempers our vindictiveness. When that happens, our voices downshift, and we speak from a deeper awareness that the truth includes the rest of us as well as the one we assailed. And when we do, it does. Others are welcomed back into humanity instead of demolished.

Civil discourse can’t happen without that level of self-knowledge. It’s as true of public debate as a disagreement in a marriage. Political discourse does not need to emulate a twelve step meeting in order for the conversation to get real. The details do not need to be part of the dialogue, just the deeper self-knowledge that includes others in the conversation as well as ourselves.

Digital symbols, like all abstractions of our experience, are neutral. They simply reflect and refract the truth of our lives. We human beings radiate information all the time. We can’t help it. A good observer can spend ten minutes with someone and discern the essential truth of their lives. A few words and gestures does it all. The truth of our lives begins at the core of our experience and being, and however we obscure or disguise that core, it wants to be known. It wants to declare itself to the world, and when it does, the barriers created by our prideful posturing vanish. Whether speech or writing or digital typing, all the levels of abstraction collapse into a single point as if we had jerked the drawstring of a purse.

By “getting real,” we mean that we speak with humility because we speak first from the truth of ourselves. When we know who we are, we can see clearly who others are. Then we can speak of accountability and compassion in the same tone of voice.

The digital world is transparent. Every key I hit declares who I am. The digital world is a Big Toy made up of video and audio and morphing animations which all collapse into light and color when we speak from the heart. The media with which we try to hide ourselves become a magnifying glass for all that we are.

“Truth” is a dangerous word. It all depends who says it and how. The real truth is what it always was. And the truth can be said or sung by any voice, any time, any where. In that moment, we break into an invisible communion, and our digital words becomes law in the world because they’re congruent with the deeper truth and our larger life.

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