What’s Real?

Q: I feel like I’m submerged in a flood of unreal messaging, a swirling, disorienting tide of advertising, political propaganda, and mass entertainment media. Fashions, fads, fanaticisms…What’s real? How can I get in touch with something real?

A: Get a toothache. That’s pretty real.

I got a toothache just once in my life, about ten years ago, when a molar coca cola advertizingsilently fractured one day and an abscess set in that evening. I’ve sprained ankles playing basketball, broken bones in wrestling, and wrenched my back water-skiing, and I can assure you that nothing hurt like that toothache all one long, long night. And I knew for certain that I was in pain. No epistemological finesse there: My mouth hurt, and hurt worse than anything I’ve ever experienced.

If you’re not quite tough enough for that–and most of us, thank God, have dentists who keep us from suffering toothache–then feel pleasure instead. You can’t be in doubt about that, either. When you bite into that gelato (my top combination is dark chocolate and raspberry), when you laugh at your favourite comedian, or when your beloved bestows upon your grateful lips a long, long kiss–there’s no wondering about what’s real. That’s real, baby.

Beyond pain and pleasure, we encounter other pairs of phenomena that show us beyond any carping academic debate that the world is real and that ethics are real and that beauty is real. (In philosophical terms, we’ve just introduced metaphysical, moral, and aesthetic realism.)

C. S. Lewis, a veteran of the World War I trenches, wrote that war confronts us with the stark realities of cowardice and courage. Facing imminent death, as Samuel Johnson once put it, “concentrates the mind wonderfully.” It also brings to light moral traits that are simply indubitable: that man over there is damnably shirking his duty and running away, while that woman over here is commendably standing fast at her post, scared as she might be.

Media in this tabloid age also delight in shocking us with crimes of disgusting cruelty that we cannot possible confuse with acts of impressive generosity. Some people, that is, dole out far more suffering than can be even imagined, let alone understood, while others give and give far beyond anyone’s expectation. Cruelty and generosity are unmistakably real.

most beautiful churchAnd when I encounter Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” or the interior of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, or South America’s Iguazu Falls, I don’t doubt for a moment that I am in the presence of Beauty. To deny that there is something there that is beautiful regardless of human estimation, even in the clever diction of the sociobiologists or poststructuralists, is to prate like a fool.

So the true, the good, and the beautiful are evidently, obviously, indubitably not mere matters of social construction. We encounter a real world all the time, if we will only pause from time to time to consider what experiences we are having in that respect.

The interesting questions then follow. How can I determine what is real among the many messages I receive from other human beings and institutions? How can I determine what messages matter most? And how can I connect my life with the true, the good, and the beautiful?

Well, one column can discuss only one thing. But for now, I’d say this: Make a iguazu falls triplist of your favourite realities, distributed across the categories of truth, goodness, and beauty. And when you encounter a single message, or a whole philosophy or religion, ask yourself how well this message, this story, this explanation actually corresponds with, and even illuminates, what you already know is real. If the message you’re entertaining tends to downplay, or explain away, or otherwise reduce what you are already convinced is real, you know the message must be false. But if the message powerfully connects with, explains, and puts in systematic order what you know is real, well, then you’re onto something.

For me, Christianity does that arranging wonderfully well. But that’s another issue for another time!

John Stackhouse

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