In one of my lectures last semester, we contemplated the concepts of “virtual” and “actual,” and how one’s reality can be made up of both. The course was about love, sex, and identity in China today, yet the topics we discussed were relevant to our own lives as well. After all, the best student learns not simply by rote, but by applying acquired knowledge to the world around her.
In our daily lives, that which is “virtual” seems pretty obvious at first: the Internet, that’s “virtual,” right? Movies, those aren’t real, they’re fantasy, fiction, made-up. That’s the virtual world. But wait. Let me take you back even further. Books are full of stories set in imaginary lands, inhabited by imaginary people. That’s virtual too. Even further, to legends of oral tradition, that may have been inspired by “actual” events, yet have been spun and spun until they are metaphor and morality, lessons to be learnt. And at the deepest level, our dreams are virtual, our thoughts are virtual. The thing is, being “virtual” by nature does not make something less real.
What is “actual” is for the most part recognisably real. It is what’s actually going on in the world, physical, tangible. The best part about humans is that we can look at the “actual,” and connect it to something brilliantly virtual. I can look at a cake, and instead of just eating it because I’m hungry, I could think, “The cake is a lie,” quoting my favourite video game, or recall my sixth birthday party where that girl pulled my hair and made me cry, or I might make plans to bake a cake of my own.
To look at this in an even more scientific way, I would link it to the TED Talk on the human brain by Jill Bolte Taylor that I recently watched. She tells us how the right brain is the “here and now” part that lives in the physical world, and the left brain is the one that considers past, present, future, connects “us” to the physical world. The right brain, therefore, sees what is “actual,” while the left brain is in charge of conceptualising the “virtual.” That’s why humans are amazing.
But hold that thought. Because our ability to perceive the virtual, to have dreams and goals can be our undoing. Expectations are virtual, and when the virtual does not match the actual, we feel disappointment. That is why hope is the ultimate virtual reality. Hope may keep you alive through hardship, hope may give you something to live for, but hope can also prolong your suffering. Hope can become a delusion that you cling to in spite of what is actually happening around you. It can be quite difficult to break out of this dream.
I don’t mean to sound negative, to hate on hope. We must dream, or we would never achieve. But we need to come out of our minds, smell the flowers, become mindful of the here and now in all its glory if we human beings are to be complete.