Long, long ago I read a short story that still sticks with me. I have no idea who wrote it, or where I read it, but it involved a colony of human telepaths who’d been stranded for years and years on a planet, with no outside contact. They weren’t worried about it. They were happy and things were fine. Then one day a new expedition arrived, and suddenly they were forced to see themselves through the eyes of others—literally, because they were telepaths, remember—and the consensus reality they’d enjoyed for decades exploded. They looked at each other through new eyes and realized they were no longer those sexy twenty-year-old beauties they’d once been. Instead they were seriously old, and the beautiful home they’d made for themselves was basically falling apart and filled with spider webs.
I don’t remember the conclusion of the story—I think it ended well enough—but I cannot shake the image of this consensus reality—or if we narrow it down, our personal realities, because it’s true: so much of our success and joy and self-satisfaction depends on who we think we are and, often, on how good we are at resisting some of life’s cold reminders that “it ain’t necessarily so.”
When my Dad was eighty-one and suffering from many disabilities, he turned to me one day and said, “You know, I’m getting old.” I blinked. I bit my tongue. No one, looking at my dad, would have any doubt that he was old, and that he’d been old for a while, but he had such a determined nature that I think he hadn’t quite realized it until then. The man he perceived himself to be was not the same man that other people saw. He had his own vision of himself and it kept him going for a long time.
A few months ago I was leaving the gym just steps behind an elderly couple who were both still quite spry. He said to her, “You know, eighty isn’t old.” She seemed startled for a moment, but then she emphatically agreed, “Of course, eighty isn’t old at all!” I suspect they hadn’t been together long, but I loved their attitude, and their consensus reality.
Of course it works the other way too and consensus realities aren’t always positive–but it’s the healthy side of delusion that fascinates me, and the way it can perpetuate joy, hope, and vigor—though we should all probably bring in fresh eyes now and then to check for spider webs.
If anyone recognizes the story described above, I’d love to hear about it.