“Have you ever had a dream,” Morpheus asked Neo, “that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?”
I woke from a dream this morning and had to take a moment to look around. Actually, this happens to me quite often. Lately, my dreams have plagued me. I haven’t had nightmares, per se, but these dreams have certainly been … uneasy. Because they’re real.
I dream of the past. I dream of my life before my crime. I dream of my life before my arrest. I dream of life before prison. I dream of normal life.
But here’s what makes these dreams uneasy: I dream about my life without the context of addiction or out-of-control sexual behavior. I dream of my life with the context and perception that I really was a normal guy, teaching high school, married, father; just a normal guy living a normal life – and perhaps that’s the “dream” part of it. So when I wake from these dreams, they feel real, because they kind of were, but they certainly weren’t. The line between dream and memory seems to blur itself when I enter REM sleep and when I wake, I sometimes need a minute to grasp a firm hold on what is real, and, more importantly, what is not.
Every morning, my wife wakes me before she leaves for work. She kisses me, and tells me she loves me. And as she’s walking away, I always say, “I miss you already.” Perhaps it is this moment of happiness that makes me feel like everything in my life is okay. But as soon as she leaves the room, reality crashes into me like a bucket of cold water, and I remember who I am, and what I’ve done. And I can’t go back to sleep.
The Matrix is one of my all-time favorite movies. And there is one scene from this film that is slowly but steadily changing my life.
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This is the “There Is No Spoon” clip from the film when Neo (Keanu Reeves) watched a boy bend a spoon with his mind, then tells him how it’s done. I’ve always known that this one simple scene carried innumerable levels of deeper meaning, but I never really put the effort into analyzing these levels beyond the context of the film itself – until I spent months upon years trying to bend the spoons of my life, without success.
—“Do not try and bend the spoon,” the boy told Neo. “That’s impossible.”—
Indeed it is. If something exists in a factual context, it cannot be altered beyond its own limitations. And as Kevin Bacon said in A Few Good Men, “These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.”
I’m seeing a therapist. I’m seeing a therapist, not because I’m on the edge of breaking down or feeling unsure of life or anything like that. I’m seeing a therapist because I need someone to whom I can speak candidly regarding my own perspectives on my life, my past, and how to best approach life as I move forward; and I can receive feedback from someone who is completely detached from my reality, and can therefore provide objective perspectives and criticisms. I need this. I have no “best friend” anymore, other than my wife and a few people who are as close as family, but I don’t want to burden them with this. Someone once told me that I somehow force others to carry the burden of knowing me. So, essentially, seeing a therapist is my way of lessening that burden.
But anyway, one of the first things the therapist told me was that there was nothing he could do to change my past. The past was there, my crime was there, my addiction was there, and no clever head-shrinking would change the facts of the not-so-bygone past. The spoon was there, and I could do to bend it. “Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible.” Very impossible.
—“Instead,” the boy said, “only try to realize the truth.”—
The truth. What a concept.
I – can – handle – the truth!
When I started my therapy sessions, the therapist, who was aware of my criminal history, kept using the word “alleged” when referencing my crime, carefully unsure of my personal perspective regarding my own guilt or innocence. I let it go the first few times because I didn’t think it was important. But it was. So at one point, I interrupted him (as politely as I could) for a brief aside.
—“What truth?” Neo replied to the boy.—
“Just for clarification,” I said to the therapist, “I did the things I was accused of.” He gave me a look of surprised comprehension. “I don’t deny what I did. I did it. I was guilty. You don’t have to operate as though I deny anything. I was guilty. I am guilty.”
Until this fact was firmly established between us, no progress could be made. And that progress would be made only when I could accept my crime – accept my “status” – and work productively toward my goal. But first, I had to realize and understand that no amount of therapy could alter the past. And this too was a “truth” I had to grasp. It was a truth of which I was certain on an intellectual level, but have struggled to grasp on an emotional level. Because unlike Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop, life does not have an “Undo” button. So there is one lesson I must learn in order to achieve my goal of happiness and contentment within the context of my own life.
—“There is no spoon,” the boy said to Neo. “There is no spoon?” Neo repeated.—
It’s not as though I don’t understand this. I’m a smart guy. I’ve learned a lot. I saw a quote once that said, essentially, that some of the smartest people in the world are the ones who have made the biggest mistakes, because they’ve learned the biggest lessons. And if that’s the case, I’m a really smart guy. But the fact of the matter is, my life is my life, and the past is a part of that life. I’ve been told by nearly everyone (all with good intentions, I’m sure) that I need to let go of my past, my infidelities, my crime, and my addiction in order to move forward and be happy. I respectfully disagree. My past is a part of me. And while I refuse to relive my past, I also refuse to walk away from it. The life lessons I’ve learned from my poor choices have molded me into what I am today – the best possible version of myself. I am a better man right now than I ever have been, in my life – but now, unfortunately, I also carry baggage and a warning label. But here’s the question: Is that baggage – is that warning label – merely a small price to pay to finally be able to live a good and moral life? Because it seems that my struggles led to a consequence that essentially straightened my life out for the better. And when it comes to stepping from the broad path of immorality and onto the narrow path of a better life, there is no magic cure; there is no instruction manual; there is no best method. There is no spoon.
—“Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends,” the boy said. “It is only yourself.”—
As I told my students repeatedly, “Life is not based on reality; life is based on the perception of reality.” This concept has never been more true than in my life, right now. I can not change the past, what I’ve done, or who I’ve hurt. But what I can do is change the way in which I perceive these events as I move forward. These events are now part of who I am. If I put my effort into merely pushing them to the wayside, then those events – good and bad – were for nothing. So I carry those events – those choices (good and bad) – with me every day. I carry them as a weight, not to weigh me down, but to make me stronger. The more weight I carry, the stronger I become; and I have not reached my limit. In The Devil’s Advocate, Al Pacino says, “Guilt is like a bag of fuckin’ bricks. All you gotta do: set it down.” Well, true. But if I carry those bricks, farther and farther, further and further, imagine how strong I’ll be in the future. I can guarantee this: If I am constantly feeling the weight of those bricks, there’s no way I’ll forget they’re there – there’s no way that I would deliberately add to them.
Admittedly, sometimes the weight gets a little heavier than normal, and sometimes my reactions aren’t what I would like. Here’s an example: I love the song “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars. Great song. Fun song. Happy song. One of the radio stations to which I listen regularly plays it daily. The problem is, sometimes when I hear it, it puts me in a better mood simply because it’s a fun song and it’s nice outside and I’ve had a decent day. But then, something in my mind stops me and says, “Wait, you’re a criminal, remember? You ruined your life, remember? You’re labeled now, remember? Why the hell are you happy about anything in life?” And then, depression sets-in. Granted, this only happens sporadically. But it happens.
So now, the paramount challenge of my life is to figure out how to exist in a world that, for the most part, wants nothing to do with me, while simultaneously being happy with the world in which I live. Because happiness is a state of being – a state of mind. And reality is immovable. As I’ve said before, there’s a song by Sister Hazel that says, “If you want to be somebody else, change your mind.” Oh, how true.
You can only be happy with your life if you change your perception of your life. And you cannot change your perception of your life without first living it differently – better. Because who you are now far exceeds who you were then; however, who you are now is because of who you were then.
In life, there is forgiveness. In life, there is redemption.
In life, there is no “Undo” button, there is no do-over option, there is no take-back. But also, there is no limit to what can be accomplished when you see life through the lens of lessons learned. To those questions, there is no right answer; there is no wrong answer.
There is no “reality.”
There is no spoon.