The year is 1448 and the city is Berlin, Germany. Although the proper name, at that time, for this settlement, should probably be Berlin-Colln. An eclectic conglomerate of peasants, guilds members and freshly made aristocracy, where the second emperor of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, Frederick II Irontooth, decided to start the construction of his new palace, one that will be more indicative of his power and status.
The citizens of that settlement, mind you, didn’t agree with that. There were rumors that the land wasn’t exactly his, also that the project will have a bit of a negative economical impact on the area, you know, the usual stuff. People were starting to talk. At first, to each other. And, after a while, with other people in power. Eventually, the whole thing became a full scale movement, known as the “Berlin Indignation”.
Alas, the Berlin Indignation, as many other full scale movements in history, wasn’t successful, and the palace was eventually built. It was finished 3 years after these events and the citizens lost quite a few of their privileges, as a result of their revolt. Since then, the palace was used as the permanent residence of the Brandenburg electors of Hohenzollern, for a very long time.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’re not interested on these events.
What we really want to focus on is a tiny time window at the beginning of this whole thing, just when the Berlin Indignation was about to start. Let’s say, just a week. Or, even better, just one afternoon. That time of the day when members of the aristocracy were out on their horses, practicing some heavy fight skills or trying to impress some damsel in distress.
On this specific afternoon, we’re also interested only in a single person. A chevalier, known by the name of Georg, a heavy lad at the peak of his physical and social career – namely, being 28 years old and serving the interests of the dominant branch of the electors. An emperor’s chevalier, to be more precise.
This afternoon, Georg was a bit nervous. He was out on his horse, wearing just some lightweight protection layers (the full on equipment would have required to be lifted up in the saddle by his servants, using a pulley). The sun was about to settle – it’s October, remember – and the narrow streets were rapidly covered in darkness.
Georg was looking for those pricks, the sleazy peasants who were so ungrateful and stupid, daring to have an opinion on the enlightened decision to build a new palace in their filthy swamp. He was out to find them, identify them, scare them a bit with his sword, as he was doing every other day and then report back to his divine master, Frederick.
As he was approaching the narrow turn that he had to make just before the crowded, barely lit marketplace where they used to gather in the evening, something completely unexpected happened.
If we were to describe this event from Georg’s perspective, we would probably say that a powerful lightning stroke his horse, who jumped like a dragon was biting his feet, throwing Georg down, like a bag of potatoes.
If we were to describe this event from a modern observer, we would probably say that an unexplainable twist in the time-continuum fabric was triggered, pushing Georg more than 500 years in the future, on the same spot.
Mind you, on the exact same spot of Berlin, 500 years after, there is a supermarket.
Let’s run an experiment.
Let’s try to understand how this new place, new context, new everything, may look like for a person like Georg. Of course, I know no real Georg, he’s just a character in my story and the place has no significance either.
But bear with me, you’ll see where I want to go with this.
First of all, there will be light. A lot of light. The contrast between the medieval scarcity of light and the abundance of it (as a consequence of the invention of electricity) must have been overwhelming. The closest thing that Georg may assimilate this experience with must have been some religious or political events he attended just a couple of times in his short life.
Based on the abundance of light, the closest association for him must have been Heaven. Or some supernatural place like this. And the first physiological reaction must have been a severe adaptation pain. Like the one you have when somebody turns on the light after you sat in a completely dark room for hours.
The most probable consequence of this situation, from a psychological point of view, would be anxiety. If not downright fear.
So we can safely assume that the first, instinctive move of Georg would be to pull out his sword and shout from the bottom of his lungs some fight cry that he used in his world.
As he is staying in the aisle between cosmetics and house cleaning products, surprise-surprise, nobody is charging. There is no other chevalier around him (as much as he can start to glimpse in his proximity, while his eyes are adjusting) and no dragon spiting fire.
But, to compensate that, it stinks. Heavily. There is a full blown assault on Georg nostrils from hundreds of small things that are carrying their own scent, one that our chevalier never encountered in his entire life. Being completely unadapted to this smells, his body reacts strongly and a powerful nausea hits him right in the stomach, like a huge punch.
Georg is frantically browsing through the world map he’s carrying within his consciousness and the closest meaning he can assign to this brutal sensation is: “poison”.
At this moment, only 3 seconds after he landed in the supermarket, with two of his main perception channels being flooded with aggressive stimuli, our chevalier is ready to make his first conscious assessment of his situation.
My personal bet is that he will assemble something like this in his mind:
“I’m dead. Although this first looked like Heaven, it’s actually Hell, a type of hell in which the fire is brighter than the sun, but strangely cold, and where the swamps are solid, but still poisonous. I should prepare for a long session of pain and repentance.”
So, let’s note that the first, and probably the most powerful conscious assessment of the situation, the one that will “color” all the subsequent environment analysis, will be strongly negative.
But Georg’s adventures aren’t over yet. On the contrary.
So far he has been hit on seeing and smelling, next in line lies hearing.
From the supermarket speakers a surreal sequence of sounds, which strangely resembles to what he knows as music, flows incessantly. As Georg doesn’t have any idea about speakers, nor electricity or radio waves, he will most likely assume that some witches are doing their mesmerizing calls, trying to break his spirit and courage. Though, he admits, experiencing something at least a bit harmonious is a nice change.
To add insult to injury, one of the desk clerks, a young blonde intern, 22 years old, ponytail, standard uniform and all smiling, is approaching this guy, who is either on drugs or rehearsing some movie scene, or – but this might be really unusual – he’s part of a “hidden camera” show running on her shift.
As the young lady approaches, our Georg is experiencing very mixed feelings. For his standards of clothing, she is absolutely naked. This sort of close-to-the-skin layer is wore by maids when they are bathing in the river behind the old castle – he knows that oh, so well. Also, she is not looking down, as she should, given his status, but right into his eyes and she is smiling. As he realizes that not only his sword is now facing upwards, still and strong, but another part of his body too, he immediately infers he’s in the process of being seduced. By a witch, of course.
5 seconds after this arrival in the supermarket, Georg had time to:
- assess the surroundings using his senses
- experience intense pain and bewildering as a result of this assessment
- approximate the situation using his available knowledge and build some meaning
In short, he’s convinced he’s in hell, and he’s about to be raped by a witch, on the mesmerizing tune of an invisible choir of other witches, all of them longing for his vigor and, eventually, his flesh and blood.
And this is not a play. Not a dream either. He is not imagining anything, all this is part of his immediate experience of life.
Try To Be The Chevalier
Congrats if you’ve made this far. Because now I want you to switch places with our hero.
Let us all be Georg. Let us all travel 500 years into the future and imagine this experience. Let’s ride a time-space continuum twist and land in a future structure, one that will be oh, so familiar and boring for those people, like a supermarket is for us today, but oh, so frightening and unexplainable for us, as it is the supermarket for Georg.
Can we? Are we prepared for this?
Truth to be told, our current reality model is way more complex than Georg’s. But is this model really applicable to a reality that will exist 500 years from now?
In Georg’s time, he was also convinced that he knew everything there is to be known about the world. All his assumptions were almost always confirmed by his experiences. Just like our assumptions.
If he was to order some peasants to kneel before him, they will most likely do it without even questioning his motives or intentions. If we are to stick our fingers in a power outlet, we know we’ll be fried in a couple of seconds.
Both our world and Georg’s world are predictable – and understandable – for persons inhabiting them.
But once we displace the persons from their corresponding worlds, the reality model starts to crumble. And, if we were to believe half of what we imagined for Georg’s experience, they will crumble in a very painful and alienating way.
Every reality model is limited and perishable. There is no such thing as a “reality”, in fact, at least not in the way the scientific revolution made us understand: a static and submissive universe, obeying unconditionally to the observer’s assumptions.
Reality is a model we build ourselves. It’s an excrescence on top of our struggle for surviving. It’s a thick layer of assumptions that we maintain every second, based on limited information and operating on faulty hardware.
It’s fragile and fluid at the same time, and yet, we cling to it with all our powers. The stronger the clinging, the bigger the pain. The more we think we know how things work, the harder we’ll be hit with fear when change happens, just like Georg was convinced he landed in Hell, whereas he was just sitting in a benign place filled with toothpaste, hygienic paper and bottled water.
So, every time you think you have your shit together, when you think you’ve “nailed it”, try to play for a little while the chevalier in the supermarket.
Try to be that guy, overwhelmed and scared, suddenly propelled in a not so distant future – but far enough that he will stretch his reality model to the breaking point, desperately trying to avoid all the imagined perils that seem to pop around.
It may seem tiring in the beginning – and also useless, for a while – but, as you will do this exercise again and again, it will eventually lead to a point where, just like the are no spoons in the Matrix, there will be no chevalier and no supermarket either.
Just you, experiencing life as it is.