How do you define reality and illusions in life?

From the time I was very young, I worried about the question of whether the true nature of Reality was as we perceive it or not.  And if we could be deluded about the nature of Reality itself, what did that mean in terms of our relationships with others, others who might be mere figments of our imaginations?  These questions troubled me for a good twenty-five years, until the answer came to me, fittingly enough, in a dream.

In that dream I was a student at a large, international boarding school.  The students were all gathered in the spacious courtyard when we received the disturbing announcement that the world was coming to an end.  There was a predictable mix of reactions from the amassed crowd –panic, denial, grief and anger.  There was also a untraceable rumor that began to circulate that there was a select group that would be chosen to survive the dissolution of the universe.  As for myself, I took the news quite calmly, perhaps because of my secret conviction that I was among those who would be saved.

Later in the dream, night had fallen, and the outside gardens were quiet, deserted and already beginning to fade at the edges.  There was no one around as I entered, for the last time, the vast, almost limitless mansion that had housed our beloved school for so many generations.  As I climbed up the wide empty staircase, I passed a group of huge circular machines, patiently cleaning and polishing each surface of the ancient building in preparation for its destruction.  I saw no other living creature until at last I made my way up to the roof.  There the air was suddenly full of light, music and laughter as the teachers of the school gathered to hold a last party for those students who still remained.

I could see the teachers for what they were now, something far older, wiser and more powerful than human beings, something angelic, almost divine.  I sought one of them out, a beloved teacher of my own from when I was very young.  She took me aside to a dark and quiet part of the roof and there we spoke under the starless sky.

As we conversed, I realized the rumor had been wrong.  It was true that I would survive the end of the universe, but there would be no group of the elect that would escape with me.  It would be me and me alone.  I also knew somehow that my teacher was as aware of this fact as I was.  Yet –and this was the amazing thing to me –even knowing this, she viewed me and treated me no differently than any of her other students.  I knew that she loved me, but I also knew that she also loved each one of her other many students in the same way, and with the same depth, even though I would go on living, and they would soon dissolve into nothingness.

“What was this all for?” I asked her.  “What did it all mean?”  I wasn’t asking about the end of the world,
but about everything that had come before –the school, the hard work of educating students, the careful cleaning of a building that was destined for destruction, the party thrown for guests whose time was measured in minutes.  What possible significance, meaning or value could any of it have in the face of the end of everything?  “Was any of it real?”

“Love,” she said.  “Love is real.  Love is meaningful. Love will survive.”

At that very moment, a bell tolled and the world faded away, as I awoke to the realization that it had been the truest dream I ever dreamed.  I had been in another world –the world of my dream –and it was also true that it had had a limited lifespan, and that it had come to an end, and that I alone of all its countless inhabitants had survived its apocalypse to journey into another world –the world of my waking life.

More than that, however, I knew also the last words of my teacher were also true –that Love is Real, that Love is meaningful, that Love survives, and that no action undertaken with Love is ever wasted.  And though I knew that the rational, objective part of my mind could call her nothing but a fiction of my subconscious, I knew that she had achieved a portion of Reality though the depth of her Love.  I could still feel its solidity like an embrace.

The experience resolved a problem that had distressed me since childhood –is this world we live in Real?  Or is it a dream or an illusion?  Are the people, things and places around us as solid as they seem?  Or are they as likely to melt away as snow in the heat of the sun?

What I learned is that the objective Reality of our world doesn’t matter.  We are all, in the largest frame of reference, figments of God’s imagination, characters, as it were, in God’s dreams.  There is still validity and Reality to the way we live and the way we treat others, regardless of any objective reckoning of fact and fiction.  The teacher in my dream was Real because of her values and the way she cared about her students.  The same type of Reality is available to you, and to me, be we disembodied brains in vats, figures in someone other person’s dream, or even fictional characters.  And though it was not a part of my dream, I have also come to understand that the converse must also be true –that giving way to cruelty and hatred renders a person as unreal and as insubstantial as the shadowy wraiths and cardboard monsters who haunt our dreams and are so gratefully forgotten with the approach of morning.

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