I used to think I could move things with my mind. I could postulate parking spots into existence. I walked beneath streetlights and they would suddenly go out, victims of my weird and powerful energy. I was taught to believe this. I was taught that I could anything, and I excelled in everything I tried. The world is a wondrous place when nothing is impossible.
Then there was a moment, or perhaps a period of my life, when I lost this. I shed the mysticism I had been raised in; I raged at its flaws and threw it out entirely. It bound me too much and I had to get rid of it. I no longer believed that I could will the world into existence. I realized that I had no idea how often streetlights mysteriously went out when I was not standing under them.
I remember a night shivering in my apartment like the newly sober.
Later, I sat across a wooden table in Arambul, Goa, with a slightly younger man. Arambol is an unreal place to begin with, a tropical fool’s paradise where everything is cheap if you’re white, including the ubiquitous hash we’d both been smoking. It was a warm, wavering sort of night in the tourist café on the beach.
The kid was telling me about how you can change the world with your mind. About how we don’t actually know what is and isn’t possible. He said sometimes feels this enormous, crazy power deep within himself, and if he could just tap that…
Look, I said, and I screwed up my face trying to get the phrasing right. He continued rolling a joint. Look— just because you feel something doesn’t mean it’s real, ok? What you feel deep within yourself and what’s actually going on, in reality, are two very different things.
He looked at me sideways for a moment, then exhaled a cloud of smoke. That’s a strong statement, he said.
Yeah, I guess it is. It’s more than a statement, it’s metaphysics. It’s my best take on how the universe is put together. I’m saying that there’s an external universe, and we don’t have direct access to it. In fact, I think our access to it is rather limited. Eyes. Hands. Books full of secondhand experiences. We can’t really know so we make up stories to describe the patterns in the kaleidoscope.
But there’s a catch. The world is not entirely outside of our heads.
Marriage. Capitalism. “Tradition” and a “university.” Or even “culture,” which is nothing but ideas. You can tear the factory down, but until you change their minds, they’ll just build another factory. And of course, there was a time when I believed I could do anything. I believe that again, even though I know now it’s not true. I believe it because it brings my personal mythologies back into the world, and maybe that’s all I’m made of.
I’m happy being a contradiction, because none of us really make sense anyway. I’m an empiricist who can shape the world with his mind, and I will whisper to lovers that I can do anything.
The only trick is understanding what parts of the universe are and are not ideas. Buildings versus norms. Bullets versus treaties. Sexual oppression is just an idea until you get raped, but it’s ideas that need to be changed to prevent this. Meanwhile gravity really does work, and there’s nothing at all about DNA that doesn’t follow from Schrodinger’s equation. The trick, when solving a human problem, is to understand which parts of it are inside our heads, and which parts of it are outside.
I think this is a fundamental confusion of our age. I think those who would meditate on the abundance of the universe might find it more helpful to send out resumes. I think those who would smash the windows of Walmart might first want to ponder why Walmart even exists. I think this is the confusion of postmodernists who see everything as a narrative, who deride science as merely one version of an ever-shifting truth. And I think this is the error of scientists who can’t understand why a citizen votes for the man who tells the best story.
All of us live within a maze of stories about a solid world. Both are real.