My work goes through waves of intensity. For now, I’m in a wave of 80+ hour weeks and days away from home in a time zone 3 hours away. I let this spill into my lunch date with Bernard, arriving late. He looked like he was on the verge of crying.
“Bernard,” I inquired. “You’re okay?”
He just looked at me and shook his head. “I just feel a little overcome,” he said.
“You seem to be getting more sentimental of late Bernard.”
“Senti-mental," he played with the word. "What good is mental activity without some sentiment?” He waved his hand, offended just enough by my insensitivity to feel his own a little less acutely.
“Point taken,” I replied.
“My life is nearly over, Ron. In all my thinking, there is only one conclusion I can safely make: I didn’t love enough. I didn’t love well.” At this he paused and, like a small kid who’d been sobbing, shamelessly wiped the back of his hand across his nose.
“The defining thing about life is that it ends. You have to keep that in mind. Most everything bad you do – from sloth to cruelty – seems to stem from forgetting this simple fact.
“Pay attention to the fact that life eventually ends and see if that doesn’t make you more sentimental.”
I had no response to this. I had been hoping for something more emotionally neutral, like philosophy. I felt a little awkward, wondering if conversations with Bernard were destined to be more emotional as he got older.
After we’d ordered, Bernard started in.
“We tend to forget that even reasoning gets moved along by emotion. What I’m about to say makes no sense to someone who thinks that sentiment has no place in logic.”
“Well, you are obviously in the right emotional place,” I say.
“You can be such a twit,” he chides. “Here’s a fact that those neuroscientist, cognitive science people like your daughter have yet to fully learn: emotional states are like the elevator that takes you to different floors of your mind, from which you can access certain thoughts or thought processes, reasons you can’t reach from any other floor. Existential angst gives your reasoning a different edge than contentment; anger makes a different route for reason than curiosity. It’s why so often drama changes minds more than arguments.”
“Bernard, I’m really fatigued. The wrong week to visit the east coast is the week of time change. You’re making me feel melancholy.”
“Good. Maybe then you’ll get what I have to say.”
“You didn’t already say it?”
“No, listen. This is what occurred to me at 3 AM this morning."
"Oh," I said. "So you're on east coast time as well?"
Bernard looked intently at me. "No, you dweeb. I'm an old man. Just listen.
"Society is a consensual trance, like a person hypnotizing himself in the mirror and then walking away from the mirror forgetting that he’s under hypnosis, thinking that everything he perceives is real.”
"What?" I was confused.
"We have programmed programmers, - parents and teachers - who tell children how to be. Where does their idea about how to be come from? Society. The society that they made up by adults telling children how to be. We're hypnotized, but it is us who have done the hypnotizing. Society isn't just made up. It's a spell."
“But societies are real,” I protested.
“Sure. But what is that reality based on? Think about the power of a hypnotist. He spends about 10 minutes with you and suddenly, you believe things that aren’t true. You’re a great singer, he might tell you, or carrying a heavy load, or walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon. If you’re hypnotized, you believe this. It all seems incredibly real. And this is something you believe after just a few minutes of his spell.” Bernard’s eyes welled up again. I still could not make the connection with what he was saying.
“Now compare that with society,” he continued. “Compare that with the time society gets to color your conscious, the time it gets to tell you that you’re awful or wonderful, that you’re a saint or slut, a brute or a gentleman.”
“This is making you sad, Bernard?” I literally scratched my head. “It’s interesting. It’s provocative. But sad?”
Bernard laughed. “You don’t get it?”
“No. I don’t.”
“You know, emotional insensitivity is overlooked as a means to resist new ideas,” he shook his head. “I’m 80 and now I get this? I finally get that this,” he waved his arms expansively, “this is a consensus trance.”
“Your insight changed your emotional state. I thought you said it worked the other way around.”
“Don’t feel like you always have to be contentious,” Bernard advised me disgustedly. “Sometimes you change floors and sometimes the floors collapse on you. Sometimes you move to the floors and sometimes they move to you. I’m trying to save you some grief.”
“So what am I supposed to do with your latest insight?”
“Well, first of all, how are you doing on the love thing we talked about?”
“I …” I was at a loss. Of late I obviously haven’t been able to properly translate what my heart was saying. It was apparently getting lost in the mail, or lost in this male, in a manner of speaking.
“Here are two things you have to convey to those beautiful children of yours. One, this is all made up. Society is a game we’ve agreed to pretend is real. Make sure that they know this is all pretence.”
“And then what? I mean, that sounds like a state of mind that might lead them to drop acid and sit on the beach watching waves crash.”
“It might. Once you kick out the props out, lives stand precariously. If someone doesn’t feel safe with you and you tell them that their life is a game, you’ll just terrify them. Or sound like an idiot. You take away the social constructs and what you are left with is ingenuity and love. If you don’t have the love, you don't even have the ingenuity. Without safety or love, a person can’t even get into the region of the brain that can create its way out of a situation. Knock out the props for society without love and you reboot civilization into a time of chaos and force.”
“Well, it’s a form of enlightenment. If that doesn't scare you a little bit ..." He trailed off. "Enlightenment doesn’t mean that you are dismissive of what makes society tick. It just means that you are not consumed by it. You might even play the game some. It’s just that you remember it is just a game.”
"You don’t live your life tone deaf to the consensual trance, blind to it. You have to see it. You’ll feel profoundly alienated if you don’t. But you have to be distanced enough from it that, like any good hypnotist’s show, you can laugh, shake your head, and even question whether the folks under hypnosis are just faking it. Every society is a form of madness."
"Well," Bernard paused. "Yeah, from the right angle. But it's not like it's a bad thing. Necessarily."
“So, I teach them it’s a game but one that matters?”
“Yeah. That’s a good way to put it.” He looked at me intently. “You know, if you can pull that off, you might just turn into a father yet.”
“It’s kind of sad, though, thinking that this is just a game.” When I’m fatigued like this, my emotions feel less robust, my natural optimism is muted.
“At first,” said Bernard. “But once you’ve told someone else, there is a certain joy in it.” He smiled like a kid. “Just a game! Think about the liberty in knowing that.” He laughed aloud. “You know, you cheered me up today.”
“I’m happy I could do that,” I lied. And before I could stop myself, I wiped the back of my hand across my nose like a kid who’d just finished a good cry.