Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.
In the old days, around 1966, in the decade of rebellions and police riots around the world, a boy and I were talking to each other in nursery school. Conversations are quite primitive among four- year-olds. And yet, complex ideas and emotions are communicated, as multivalent as any thoughts and feelings shared by drunk college students or bitter philosophers with mortgages, marriages, and secret shames weighing on them. Humans are timebombs of distress and joy at any age. No passions or fears shared over glasses of whiskey or in smokey dens are any more momentous than those hashed over across Dixie cups of grape juice while wooden building blocks are being stacked.
And this boy, Mark was his name, said to me, “I can dream whatever I want. I decide what I want to dream before I fall asleep, and then I dream it.”
I didn’t disbelieve him. I didn’t believe him unreservedly, either. I withheld judgment. His sleep process could easily be unlike mine. It wasn’t beyond imagining. It wasn’t like he told me he could levitate objects with his mind.
I had no control over my dreams. I tried different tricks to escape from nightmares. One trick was to close my eyes in the dream, and then open them, whereupon I would be awake. But that trick only worked a few times. Jumping from a great height could work, but getting into position to do so in a dream wasn’t always possible, and in any case, it wasn’t a pleasant option. Often in my dreams I would see friends of mine accompanied by smaller doppelgangers of themselves, mini-thems, which was disturbing, though not insignificant, as you’ll see. If my dream life and my attempts to guide it taught me anything back then, it’s that I was helpless.
Neuroscience has come to the general conclusion that conscious awareness plays little to no part in human activity. Our unconscious, or “subconscious” as people who adhere to misquotes of Freud like to call it, decides things before our conscious mind initiates an action. They’ve tested this. It’s not controversial. The same you that breathes without thinking too much about it also decides to put your finger in your nose before you are even aware there’s a dry, prickly booger up in there. And don’t try pulling any surprises, like wiggling your fingers for no reason; the you beneath is way ahead of the you on top.
It’s almost as if you have a shadow puppeteer pulling the strings. And that shadow puppeteer’s thought processes are not available to you. Surely you’re familiar with the fact that people often say things they don’t mean, or have entirely divergent motives behind their actions from those they are willing, if they are even able, to express.
So we’re all just façades, paper masks, wandering through the motions of our lives, operated by invisible puppeteers whose motives and plans are an elaborate secret, gears, servos, and processes winding and unwinding like secret clocks keeping a secret time. A whole other invisible world is operating behind the scenes. Whether or how much the individual worlds are conspiring together is a question too far beyond our investigative abilities to even approach answering. If we fall in love, who in fact is falling in love, and why? If we react to another with fear or hatred, whose prejudice is it? Where do our feelings come from? Are they made by a shadow committee of our ancestors’ ghosts in our unremembered past? Can we ever overcome the training our unconscious puppet masters have undergone without our knowledge so we can abort the cycle of failure our species seems fated to ride forever and ever?
Certainly, some triggers to trauma can be overcome, but it seems to require knowing what initiated the trauma in the first place, the “ur-trigger.” We are prevented from seeing the original engines of our fates, and only the luckiest among us finds a guide of some kind to bring them into at most partial confrontation and reconciliation with the hidden demons of our past.
Armed with this knowledge—or maybe “disarmed” or even “defenseless” is more like it—I aspire to design my own dementia. My paternal grandmother suffered for over a decade with dementia. My mother’s father also dissolved in the few weeks near the end of his life. Both became trapped in hermetic, opaque worlds in which they seemed always plagued by petty annoyances. My grandmother complained about people not paying attention to her complaints.
My grandfather railed in frustration about his independence being taken from him. Two sides of my family, both ending up trapped in private worlds of unpleasant, faulty comprehension.
I don’t want to end up that way. And I’m an annoyed, unhappy guy by nature. It’s not out of the realm of eventuality that I could end up trapped in an unhappy, annoyed self. But how can I prevent it? I couldn’t even influence my own dreams, back when I could experience and remember them. How can I hope to get the ear of the shadow puppet master?
Apparently, “puppet master” is a gross mischaracterization. In a December 2018 article in Scientific American, Peter Carruthers, Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park, said, “We are not simply puppets manipulated by our unconscious thoughts, because obviously, conscious reflection does have effects on our behavior. It interacts with and is fueled by implicit processes.”
He was being interviewed about a paper he’d published the year before called, “The Illusion of Conscious Thought.” But his point wasn’t so much that unconscious forces have control over us, as that consciousness simply comprises a lot more than we normally understand it to.
I have a friend in his eighties who is heading into awareness decline. It’s tragic. He’s an old Hollywood writer who would love to share stories about the good old days. He used to show up at coffee—he still does but not for much longer; his distressed wife, having become unable to care for him, has found a facility it seems he will be happy in. In the good old days of three years ago, he’d go to the counter with his giant golden doodle, Levi, get a coffee and an apple Danish, sit with us, and kibbitz. I only really got to know him for about a year and a half before I realized he no longer knew who I was, although he still felt comfortable ribbing me.
“Look at this guy, what a cheapskate, eating a banana instead of a pastry,” he might say in his jolly manner, even though he hadn’t a clue who “this guy” was. “Have a pastry! You still have a couple holes left there to loosen your belt! Take advantage!”
He has maintained his cheerful demeanor throughout his decline, even when totally confused. He’s unaware he’s confused, or why he’s confused, but he just plows ahead, and no one corrects him anymore if he calls someone named Abner “Stewart.” Correcting him just makes him more confused.
Last time I saw him, last Friday, I believe, he’d just sat down with his paper, coffee, and apple Danish. I said, “Hi, Jay!” He said hello back to me, happy as ever, and when I started petting Levi, whom I love, he seemed delighted.
That’s the kind of senility I would like to inhabit, if I have to suffer mental degradation.
More than that, I would like to start a “design your own dementia” service. Kind of a “Build a Bear” for senescence. You’d come into the store, and I’d have a chart with aspects you’d like your dementia to have. Jolliness, wit, love of animals, patience, you’d check them off like items on a sushi scorecard. And then I’d perform my protocols for convincing your unconscious mind to give you these qualities when your conscious mind was finally unmoored.
Or, I wouldn’t do my protocols. Maybe I’d just wave my hands over you, mystical style. What, some demented old fart who can’t even remember his grandchild’s name, or even that he has a grandchild, is going to take me to court because he’s dissatisfied with is dementia? There’ll be no paper trail, no reverse mortgage document with Tom Selleck’s signature on it—he does sign them all personally, right? Otherwise, what would be the appeal to the swindled mark? Anyway, I won’t have any reverse mortgage documents with Tom Selleck’s signature, so don’t ask. This is a cash business. Forget it, gramps, you’re not getting a dime back. Anyway, I already spent it all on hookers and charcuterie.
And the same goes for all the rest of humanity. I hereby impress upon your unconscious minds that you want peace and justice, and your lust for profit, gullible belief in the fairness of free markets, rugged individualism, xenophobia, and bad taste are all illusions that are dissolving like a wad of hair under the influence of Drano. Soon, so very soon, you will find yourselves performing actions of real communal value, actions to preserve and nurture the resources of our world, and relinquishing all claims to things that are private which would certainly be far more useful if made available to each according to their needs.
That’ll be 24 million bucks. Take the deal! You’re getting off cheap! And you get a trucker cap and a tote bag! Signed by Tom Selleck!
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!