Escaping our own prisons
“America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It’s ‘winner take nothing’ that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
People v. The State of Illusion, a recently released docudrama “explores the science and power of perception and imagination” according to the producers. It does so through a story of Aaron, who is “everyman” in our society, who does what millions of other men and women do: Stopping after work for a drink, or two, and then heading out in innocent fashion to catch his 11-year-old daughter’s play.
Tragedy strikes and Aaron is now locked up for six years in the state penitentiary. Angry and bitter, Aaron at first refuses to acknowledge his responsibility for the tragedy, a crash in which a mother of two small children is killed.
His prison cell serves as a metaphor for the “state of illusion” under which we operate insisting that what we each see, hear, and feel is absolutely, concretely true. Because of our modern complex, overworked, and over-connected society, it becomes our reality, our prison.
The film is in the genre of the 2004 docudrama What the Bleep Do We Know? that also explores how we create a reality or allow our reality to be created through our life experiences that are often negative.
Simple, but ongoing comments and invectives hurled at us over time such as “You’re stupid,” “You’re fat,” or “You’ll never amount to anything” beat us down and shape our images of ourselves. Over time, we buy into them thereby creating the world in which we live and from which its seemingly impossible to escape.
This state of illusion has ramifications for us on the social-political arena as well in personal, everyday life.
A couple columns ago I wrote about how many men, on both the political right and left, use terms such as “slut” and “prostitute” to degrade a woman with whom they disagree. It’s about de-powering the woman by reducing her to less-than-human status.
Women I’ve talked to say they learn about the submissive role they are to assume in later life from the earliest age by being put in a subservient status vis-à-vis perhaps their male siblings. It’s re-enforced in their teen and early-adult years, and by the time they reach full adulthood they are expected to know “their place.”
Other groups fare likewise: racial and ethnic minorities, gay and lesbians, immigrants among them.
Demeaning and debasing appellations, name-calling, such as the n-word for African Americans, the f-word for gays and lesbians, and a host of others for immigrants, especially brown- and black-skinned, do their work when uttered by a member of the dominant culture: white, hetero, upwardly-mobile males.
At the personal level, defeatism pervades our consciousness and can be reflected in efforts to find a job or change careers. I’ve been reading of observations by human resource officers who find it frustrating to fill positions by people who have been unemployed for a couple or few years. The reason they cite is that individuals haven’t honed their skills or kept up with the changes in this ever-changing techno-economy.
I used to joke about people stuck in the VCR-programming era. Now it’s more about people unskilled and essentially intimidated by i-phones and their sister communication devices. It’s overwhelming.
And that “overwhelmingness,” that “I can’t do that” can be the cause of defeat and lead to addictions including food, alcohol and drugs, and other self-debilitating practices. Those, in turn, exacerbate one’s powerlessness and induce a sense of helplessness, disconnection, and worthlessness.
It comes down to re-empowerment of the individual. In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda tells Luke, feeling incapable of performing his task, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
And when physically tiny Yoda performs the task—raising Luke’s ship from the swamp—Luke is amazed and says, “I can’t believe it!”
To which Yoda incisively replies: “That is why you fail.”
People v. The State of Illusion is thought-provoking and should have meaning not only for the disempowered but also for those caught up in the 21st-century rat race, which is the late-20th century version on steroids.
It’s an intense world in terms of conflict and speed. One can either continue to be subservient to the ones with power—submit and accept their rules of engagement—or can empower or re-empower his/her self by saying “NO!” All one has to lose, after all, is his/her unhappiness.
In his 1952 classic, Ellison eloquently says it well: “I am ashamed of myself for having at one time being ashamed.” Quite a mantra to live by.