People sometimes play practical jokes on someone by having everyone in a group pretend not to notice something obvious — an unusual sound, for instance. When the target of the joke mentions the sound — a drum beating or a horn blowing or something else — others seem oblivious and nonchalant, acting more and more as though they believe the person who hears the sound is joking — or maybe hearing things that aren’t there.
For much of my adult life, I’ve had a vague sense that almost everybody in the world is playing such a practical joke on me. I’ve halfway expected someone to finally laugh and say, “OK, we’ve been pulling your leg. Did you almost believe we were all crazy? Or did you think you were crazy?”
And that’s just it. I have a horrible sense that the world around me is fundamentally insane — or else I’m insane. Because if what I perceive of the world is real and accurate, the world is fundamentally nuts. But if the world is sane and rational, I must be insane to perceive it as making so little sense.
I’ve never really harbored any suspicions that I was the unknowing center of something like “The Truman Show,” but I’ve often thought that such a bizarre thing would explain a lot — because the world as I experience it makes no sense, unless everybody is putting me on.
You see, I have a strong need for the world to make sense — and little about this world seems sane to me. So am I crazy? Or is the world as irrational as I perceive it to be?
I desperately need for the world to make sense to me. I need some order and stability. I need underlying “rules” that make sense. When things don’t make sense, it feels as though I’m standing in quicksand — that I’m never on firm ground, that I’m observing an alien landscape where I don’t really belong.
I move through this world feeling like an alien because things don’t make sense, yet the people around me don’t seem to notice that or maybe they’re not bothered by it. Things make sense to me when I understand them — when I know what action will produce which result. In so many ways, this world is not that way, so I feel like an alien.
When I was younger, I assumed that human beings were rational. I assumed that people made changes — as individuals and as groups — when they were in situations that made no sense. But when I look around me today, I see it isn’t so.
From the most mundane things — how our transportation systems operate, to mention an example that I think about every day when I’m driving — to the government systems that have the power of life and death over us, so little of the way the world works makes sense. It’s like living inside a surreal and absurd painting.
But there seems to be a conspiracy of silence to pretend that nobody sees these things. This leaves me feeling angry and confused.
It confuses me that other people are not angry and confused. It confuses me that other people don’t see the world in the same ways that I do. It confuses me that when I mention irrational things which seem obvious to me, most people either say, “I never thought of that,” or else they shrug their shoulders and have no interest.
It confuses me that other people don’t prioritize the things which I see as life-giving. It confuses me that people put up with horrible things in their lives but pretend the things aren’t there or that they have no choice. It confuses me that most of the “cause and effect” connections I was taught as a child turned out to be false. It confuses me that people say one thing and then do something entirely different. It confuses me that people don’t explain themselves. And it confuses me that the ways in which I thought I could be loved don’t seem to get me what I need.
People are cruel to each other and they think it’s funny. They think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t laugh at their cruelty. People accept ugliness from their friends or family simply because they’ve come to expect those things — and they don’t realize they have any choice. They don’t realize they can say, “This is not the way an emotionally healthy person lives, so I’m not going to accept that anymore.”
You know what’s even worse? It seems as though almost everyone else is oblivious to all the things about human life that are irrational. It’s either that or else they’re all in on the joke and I’m not.
I remember a lab experiment involving mice who were trained to push a button every time the floor of their cage was given an electrical shock. The mice quickly learned that the shock would stop if they pushed that button. They also learned that pushing another button would give them food that they liked.
Despite the fact that these mice were regularly subjected to some electrical shocks, they were healthy and well-adjusted, because they knew how to make the shocks go away and they knew how to get food. They had control over the pleasure and pain in their lives.
But if you took a random subset of the mice and changed the buttons, the mice quickly changed. If pushing the first button sometimes stopped the shocks and sometimes did nothing — and if pushing the other button sometimes delivered food and sometimes didn’t — the mice learned that they had no control. Their world suddenly made no sense.
These mice which had been formerly well-adjusted became depressed. They gave up. Instead of trying to stop the shocks, they just laid on the floor and took whatever shocks they got. Without a world that made sense — one over which they had some control — the mice got depressed and listless and unhealthy. Many of them died.
This is what an out-of-control world does to human beings. This feeling of lack of control makes us shut down our feelings and become numb to the misery of what our world has become. We accept whatever is done to us and choose to focus on smaller and smaller areas of life where we can have some illusion of control.
I suspect that most people ignore the irrationality of the world around them simply because if they notice it and accept it, they will realize how crazy their world is and how little control they have — and that’s when they start to die, bit by bit, from a numb depression which they try not to notice by distracting themselves with pleasure and other pursuits.
I can’t help but notice what’s going on — and the lack of control leaves me depressed and feeling isolated. I need someone to say, “Hey, I see what you see, too. They’re the crazy ones, not us.”
Do you remember the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Everybody in the story pretended to see the emperor parading around in his fine new clothes — which didn’t really exist, of course — because they had been told that only the best people could see these clothes.
But one young boy was willing to go against the conspiracy of silence around him. He knew the emperor was naked — and he said so. Only after the child had the courage to point this out could other people start doing the same. And then the fraud was over.
What if more of us were like that young boy? What if more of us were willing to point to all the irrational things we’re told to accept? Even if there weren’t enough of us to change the whole world, wouldn’t it be a relief to find explanations that made sense to some of us? Wouldn’t it be a relief to take back some form of control over our thoughts and our lives?
I know most people will never do this. I know that most people are willing to walk around in a world which seems like an M.C. Escher or Salvador Dali painting — a world where nothing makes sense — but not say a word because they’re scared of losing what little they already have.
I can’t do that. I can’t pretend the world makes sense. I can’t pretend humans make sense most of the time. I can’t pretend that we’re the best we can be. And I can’t pretend that life is worth living without being loved and understood.
If you ever open your eyes to the insanity and irrationality of the world, you won’t be able to close them again. And if you ever open your eyes to a better and more fulfilling way of living — of being loved and understood and valued — you will never want to go back.
But making the initial leap — admitting the emperor has no clothes, in a world where everybody is worshipping the emperor — is scary.
It requires saying, “I see that the way we’re living — the way I’m living — makes no sense and I want to change it, even if I don’t know how to get there.”
I wish more people would come down this road with me, because it’s a very lonely road right now. I need others to travel the road with me — and find a better way for all of us to live. But it kills me inside to know that those who most need to come this way will always refuse to change.