Lies, Truth, and Layers of Reality: They Can Hurt Us, But They Can't Have Us *
One of the worst things I've ever heard, in hindsight, is so benign to me now that I'm almost too embarrassed to relate the story.
I was at a fair with my father when I was about nine years old — which means he was seven years younger at the time than I am now, and, wow, is time ever a messed up thing to contemplate — when I pointed out this kid walking by with one of those giant, cheap-looking stuffed bears. It was so large he had to clutch it to his chest with both arms wrapped under the animal's forelimbs. I knew those toys were cheaply made with rough fur and stuffing that crinkled like cellophane inside, but their ungainly size still made them so alluring. I had seen giant stuffed animals that cost as much as engagement rings at department stores around Christmas, and as much as I dreamed of it I knew that I would never have one of those in my life, but these? These seemed possible. In fact, they seemed probable. These seemed like you could have them for little more than a few dollars and a mini basketball tossed through a net.
I had been watching people toss rings and shoot water guns and throw balls all afternoon. I had seen teenagers pick out cheaper prizes for lesser wins — slingshots and feathered hair clips and plastic dolls — but I hadn't witnessed anyone winning one of those big bears in person. And yet, there were several people walking around with them all day.
What got me wondering about it all was the improbability that these big prize winners wouldn't just take those giant prizes back to their cars. Once you won one of them, there's no way you could eat or go on rides or even hang out comfortably under the summer sun on that black asphalt. Who would insist on carrying around a three-foot-tall stuffed bear in 30°C late-July heat? Maybe they were show-offs? Maybe they thought it was worth losing all the mini-donuts and Zipper rides to strut around in the heat with hot acrylic fur pressed against their chests?
If they really could all win those bears, though, then I wanted to know why my dad wouldn't give me the cash to play the games. A few bucks for a giant bear seemed more than reasonable to me, so I asked him again.
"Can I have some money for the games? I want to win a bear."
"I already said no."
"But all those kids won them."
And this is when he told me the thing that twisted my gut. It was awful.
He said this: "When I was a kid, I was asked if I wanted to carry around one of those bears. One of the guys at the booths offered to pay me a few of bucks to walk around with it so other people would want to play. They make money by making the games look easy, but they're hard to win on purpose."
Suddenly, the kid over there with the big blue bear was probably a liar. And that man over there. And that teenager next to a game with rubber ducks in a pond. They all might be liars, and for only a few bucks. All the greasy men in the booths were liars. It was grifts all up and down the fair. The whole place became a lie dressed up in primary colours. Within less than a minute, fun had turned itself inside out, a rotten animal skinned.
I asked my father why we came if he knew the whole thing was fake, if he knew that these weren't really games. He seemed confused by my question, but I couldn't figure out what could possibly be confusing. This was all just terrible now, wasn't it? Everything was fakery and lies so they could steal. The games were all just facades for darker motives. Why were we all there? How could any of this lying and stealing be fun?
I was deeply concerned that everything be honest and real when I was a kid. My mother once talked to me about how she was thinking of investing in a knitting machine, because she'd been knitting sweaters for money, and a knitting machine would mean that she could invest far less time and work into each sweater. The idea horrified me. I went into full drama mode, weeping as I tried to explain to her how terrible this idea was. The beauty in her knitting was that it was all born from her fingers. A programmed machine would build from a pattern the same as it would on any other machine. Anyone could make it just the same. Her fingers, her tension, her attention would barely matter. She would barely matter. Her sweaters would literally mean less.
And that was my horror, the thing that twisted my gut at that fair with my father. We were standing in the middle of a mirage. People all around us were engaged and invested in meaningless fictions. What games were there hardly mattered. Who played them hardly mattered. They played to win games that could not be won. At the end of the day, everything was rigged to favour the fair. The easier games sold the lie, and those bears wandering by would never be mine.
I wondered about everything after that. I wondered what else was built just to sell or make me believe things. Was school? Was television? Was church? Was family?
I've been thinking about that day a lot lately. The notion that things were not always what they seemed wasn't new to me then, but realizing it in such a big picture way was, and the overwhelm of that realization blinded me to the truth that continued beneath it. Everything felt like a lie, even though it wasn't all a lie. My father was still real, and what he was teaching me was real. I was still real (or at least as real as one's experience of the self can be). I was walking through a piece of hard truth with someone who also knew that truth. Despite the constructs propped up to cloak a particular reality, they did not erase the foundation beneath them. They did not even fully supplant it for those of us who were aware of the construct.
As much as my sick stomach told me otherwise, the lie did not destroy truth. It merely perched in place long enough to make a few bucks from people who didn't know any better or who didn't care too deeply about the grift. My foundation remained intact while I walked through the brittle and temporary construction of another. Knowing the truth meant I no longer experienced the lie as truth. I just had a different landscape with different rules to navigate for a while.
With crumbling democracies and climate change and economic disparities and everything else stealing my sleep these days, I've become concerned again with the nature of truth and lies and the realities we walk through. When I get caught up in the surface of it all, the spin from the news and corrupt government leaders and social media, I momentarily forget the depth of my foundation and buy into the propped up booths with loud men and bright distractions, but these are not truth. These constructs may contain some truth, but they are not whole truths. These are mind-trips to sell us perspectives that are advantageous to the sellers, and this is true even of the mind-trips we like and agree with, the ones that point toward greater justice. The bears might be real, but they are not all won the way we're lead to believe. We have to stay awake, remain mindful, and remember that this, too, will become something else.
Knowing that our human foundations are still here brings me back to what I value, who I love, where I am. The wicked constructs are taking a very real toll on the planet they prop themselves up on, but we are still here. My heart is a meaty muscle aching in my chest. I lean on Aidan's chest and hear his own meaty beat beneath his ribcage. Other constructs are brittle and ugly by comparison. We are here, and we continue.
Looking back, I wish I could tell that little kid that this multi-layered reality is a puzzle worth knowing about, that even though it can be painful it isn't about me. I am still real. You are still real. Our connections with kin, loves, tribes, and the planet are real. The whole world is not the lie, even though the overwhelming story of its collapsing structures is widely embraced. These structures can hurt us, but they can't have us.
The world is not falling apart in its entirety, just in its most brittle layers, and we can fight for our foundations, this planet, our hearts still beating out their tattoos against our lungs.**
* This is a logical mess. If my feelings were liquor, I'd be in my cups.
** Metaphors are here to be mixed, remixed, and then molded into clubs for me to beat you with, apparently.