Reality vs Non-Reality

John Lennon once said, “Reality leaves a lot to the imagination”. Any discussion of reality vs. non-reality will by its very nature be subject to the experience of the person speaking as much as that of the one listening. Reality like time, and to a certain extend the truth, is relative. Whether you’re analyzing a play, watching one of the numerous “reality” television programs, or waking up from a dream, you are experiencing a version of reality that exists singularly at that point in space and time. The thin line between perceived reality and imagined non-reality is nothing more than a conscious construct necessary to maintain one’s sanity.

As human beings our perception of reality is a result of the bio-electric processing of the input received by our brains. This fact alone is enough to make any serious discussion of reality suspect. The forward march of our existence is predicated on the realities we perceive in the world around us as well as the ones we imagine in our dreams. Imagination is central to the human experience and is by its very nature rooted in non-reality. In our imaginations and in our dreams is where we play out fantasies that society at large has deemed counter productive, inappropriate or taboo. In addition it’s where we create realities that can be used as test beds or training grounds for future realities that may or may not come into existence.

At its core, reality is the sum of all actions that have been taken, are being taken now and will be taken in the future by the entirety of humanity. An example of this collective reality is the recent surge in popularity of so-called reality TV. According to The Nielson Company, viewing estimates for broadcast TV during the week of April 18, 2011 the top four rated shows were American Idol – Wednesday (22.5 million), Dancing With The Stars (20 million), American Idol - Thursday (20 million) and Dancing With the Stars Results (16 million). These programs depict “real people” in “real situations”. While this reality may appear at first to be different than the fictional realities portrayed in more traditional programming, it is in fact just a different kind of reality. It is reality created and broadcast in real time as opposed to the imagined reality of more traditional, fictional entertainment. At their most basic level they are still just a processed perception interpreted by our brains. Are the feelings of compassion or contempt for the “stars” of these programs any different than those you feel for your favorite prime-time actor or actress?

In Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play The Glass Menagerie, the themes of reality vs. non-reality are played out for our collective entertainment. The entire production is staged in the memory of the actor and narrator Tom Winfield. The reality explored in the play is the version of non-reality that exists in Tom’s memories. However what’s most interesting is that while in the version of reality processed by Tom’s memory the audience is additionally exposed to the non-reality of the other two main characters. His mother’s version of reality may be the most striking of the play. The perceived reality that she lives in could never compare with the reality she interpreted as a young woman growing up in the south. Her entire existence is an attempt to recreate as much of that lost reality as possible. Her attempts at securing a “gentleman caller” for her daughter are the apex of her struggle to maintain a non-reality based on the reality of her past. Tom’s sister Laura also strides the gulf between realities. While portrayed as a shy woman struggling with a physical deformity, the actual reality of her condition is left up to the audience. Is her inferiority complex an emotional manifestation of the limp caused by her polio, or is the limp a physical manifestation of her inferiority complex? The answer to that question is woven into the fabric of the reality in which her world is perceived. In the final moments of the play we get a rare glimpse into the convergence of the non-reality existing solely in the memory of the narrator and his current reality as he attempts to reconcile these two separate but equal constructs in an empty apartment where the flames of existence were extinguished long ago.

Reality, whether our current perceived reality or the imagined non-reality buried deep in the recesses of our unconscious, shares a tremendous amount in common with the passage of time in that both time and reality are relative to the individual experiencing them. Time can fly while you’re having fun and it can grind to an excruciating halt when you’re not. In much the same way the recollection of reality passed is perceived relative to observer. It is often said that there are three sides to every story - your side, my side and the truth. In The Glass Menagerie, the convergence of perceived reality and imagined non-reality is made glaringly apparent through the dichotomy of Laura’s recollection of high school and her gentleman caller’s recollection of the same time period. For her the imagined non-reality was and is just as real as his yet they couldn’t be more different. What these constructs convey is that as much as we may dislike it, the truth is relative. We can extrapolate from this understanding that the realities that are still to come will be interpreted as they pass, recorded according to their perceived experience and then fall to the annals of history only to once again be recalled in a desperate attempt to give meaning to the reality currently being processed. The thin line between the reality being perceived and the non-reality being used to give it context begs the question, which one is real?

When we wake up from a dream and find ourselves floating between perceived reality and the imagined non-reality of our subconscious, it’s all but impossible to tell which is “real” and which isn’t. At that moment in time they are both real and one in the same. This brings to light an interesting possibility, could our perceived reality really be the dream, making our imagined non-reality the true reflection of our existence? The cartoon Calvin and Hobbs once asked an intriguing question, “Did you ever wonder if the person in the puddle is real, and you’re just a reflection of him”? It is truly an interesting question and, I think, worth serious consideration.

During the time it took to complete this essay an entire generation of realities have retired. One day the “reality” of writing this essay will be called upon to put some future reality into perspective. It will be recalled as it was experienced, further masking the line between its truth and that of the reality it’s invoked upon. The only guarantee is that one-day we will all find out what is and is not real. Unfortunately we won’t be able to tell anyone else about it.