Cracks in the Fabric of Reality

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen — Anthem

In the movie The Truman Show (1998) an insurance salesman is oblivious of the fact that his entire life is a TV show and his family members are mere actors. He has a seemingly perfect life, the American dream, the bourgeois kind of life the 1950s are associated with: a 9–5 routine job, a home in the suburbs, security, nothing bad ever happens. As the show approaches its 30th anniversary, Truman begins discovering unusual elements such as a spotlight falling out of the sky in front of his house and a radio channel that precisely describes his movements. As he starts noticing things and uncovers the truth, he decides to escape.

A spotlight falling from the sky is a crack in Truman’s reality. A paradox that is incongruent with his worldview. Like me, many people will probably have suspected that they were not meant to be for this kind of life. Yes, there are plenty of people, from teenage runaways to neurodiverse people with a “wrong world syndrome”. One of my favourite stories is one a person who had been a gifted child told me: he believed that he was an alien on this planet when he was a child and, in the evening, he often looked out for UFOs hoping that “his people” would pick him up and take him away from here.

We are brought up in one culture that typically teaches us that there is one reality. However, if philosophy has taught us anything, then it’s that there is no one reality that works for all. One of the most fascinating things about Truman is his uneasiness with the “perfect world” he lives in as if he can feel that he wasn’t made for this perfect world. I grew up in the 80s, a generally carefree time and I had a good bourgeois upbringing and yet, it left me somewhat traumatized and with a good deal of social anxiety and depression. Social anxiety and depression are well-known phenomena that have been both on the rise for a while and so have been accompanying suicides. Rational optimists, like Steven Pinker are telling us that the world is getting better all the time: lower child mortality, higher material well-being, better education, etc. And yet, there are cracks in this kind of reality: higher incidence of postpartum depression, higher incidence of suicide, and a society that seems to be dumbing down despite years and years of more educational attainment than in previous times. In the United States, more than a quarter of households were single-person in 2020 according to census data, up from 13 percent in 1960 (doubled). There is an epidemic of loneliness and disconnectedness, one that has got little attention so far.

In our hunter-gatherer past post-partum depression probably led to infanticide, which is not uncommon in foragers when the survival of a new-born may be threatened by inadequate support. Nowadays child mortality is lower than ever before in history thanks to science and postpartum depression is higher than ever before in history. There is an evolutionary mismatch between the two. We live at an age of unprecedented material well-being and safety and yet mental health disorders are on the rise. We think we are offering our children the best possible childhood, and yet the children are suffering and not ok. We put it down on their addictive use of smartphones and digital media, yet these are merely the symptoms, not the cause of the problem. We are telling our children to be assertive, to try hard to succeed and that they will have to do it on their own. However, homo sapiens has always been a social special, few of our ancestors had to do it on their own.

Economist have been telling us that competition is great for us, creating innovation and wealth and thus making everyone better off. However, just like communism has turned out to be an illusory ideology, capitalism the cracks in capitalism have been widening too. It has become obvious that only a few people are getting rich and that the divide between rich and poor has been increasing. And our obsession with innovation is turning out to become unhealthy too. Do we really need the latest gadgets, or have they become status symbols and symbols of conformism?

Creative and innovative people are highly sought after in the creative economy. They are harder and harder to come by it seems. What’s more, creative and innovative people used to be there for all and not just for few giant companies to make them even more money. Companies like Apple are now richer than most countries in the world, including Australia. In December 2019, Saudi Aramco — a national petroleum and gas company — became the most valuable listed company in history. Now, they are worth more than £1.5 trillion ($2 trillion). If they were to receive country status, they would be the 9th wealthiest country in the world. Apple, Amazon and Microsoft combined generate more money than the UK.

Our planet is in trouble and it’s time we harnessed its creative and innovative potential for solving problems that are threatening our survival rather than for creating more stuff we don’t need and for marketing that very stuff.

When I came of age the Berlin Wall fell. It was the most significant and happiest political moment in my life. There was optimism everywhere. We thought that liberal democracies and education would go on to make the world a better place forever, until the end of history (Fukuyama). Now there are more walls than in 1989 that separate people. Not only have most countries not achieve liberal democracy, but liberal democracies are also failing in the west, with the election of populist politicians like Donald Trump that threaten to democracies from within. Europeans may shake their heads in bewilderment, but the former extreme right politician Marine Le Pen achieved 41,4% of the vote in the last election in France. That in itself is actually less scary than the lack of international interest. When Jörg Haider’s right wing Freedom Party won a far lower percentage of the electorate there was a huge international outcry. People seem to have become comfortably numb. Globalisation was once thought to be unifying the world. Now that globalisation is imploding the world suddenly doesn’t seem big enough for all of us to share anymore. “France for all the French” was Le Pen’s slogan that appealed to French people, just like “Make America Great Again” appealed to Americans.

There are too many cracks in our reality by now. I am grateful to the late Sir Ken Robinson for showing me some of those cracks in my own field, education. Why has there been such an increase in ADHD in recent years, an epidemic far worse than COVID? Is it only because diagnosis is getting better or because we are becoming more and more dysfunctional as a society? Are we creating ADHD kids and then turning them into zombies using medication? What if we are taking left-handing kids, forcing them to write with their right hands then claim that these kids are dysfunctional? It may sound ridiculous, but we have been there before, and we are probably there like never before in history.

Evolutionary mismatches (cracks) are the best to find out about the kind of reality evolution has programmed our brains for. And this reality may be very different from what our cultures tell us. Whatever stories our cultures have been telling us, there are cracks in reality everywhere. And they let the light through.

For more, check out my new book: Cracks in the Fabric of Reality

Originally published at on May 2, 2022.



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