Updated: Feb 10
You're a body drifting through space. As completely alone as anyone else in the history of humankind, floating millions of light-years away from the nearest stars. They shine fiercely in the distance; on the best of days, they remind you that you're not alone on your journey through space; on the worst of days, their remoteness and indifference only reflect your own isolation. This is the way it's been for as long as you can remember, time having lost any meaning in the infinite vacuum.
Suddenly, you find yourself staring into the mouth of a glowing wormhole. You can feel it beckoning to you, but you have no clue where it leads, only that it's away from here, away from the eternal monotony. Who wouldn't want to see where it leads? Maybe it goes to a different world? Somewhere where the rules don't apply, where the hand you've been dealt no longer matters. Maybe it's a new body or a new home. Somewhere that completely recontextualizes who you are. Come to think of it; it doesn't even really matter where it goes. You've been so alone for so long that any escape from this unrelenting sameness feels like a welcome one.
It seems like you have all of the right reasons for jumping in and seeing, for real, where the wormhole leads. And yet, before taking the leap, you hesitate for a moment to think…
When talking about his inspiration as a writer, H.P. Lovecraft once said, "Life has never interested me so much as the escape from life." That line really stuck with me, and I think it resonates with a lot of us in the modern age. While Lovecraft was talking about escaping into the world of literature, today, we are gifted (and burdened) with a countless number of ways to escape our lives. Sure, we still have the classic methods of escapism: books, film, and television. Only they've been multiplied by thousands of times for the modern consumer and exist in tandem with social media, smartphones, and video games. Relationships with other people can be a form of escape, as can drugs or other more self-destructive habits. Yet, the essence of all of these methods is the same: to take some time off from the burden of being yourself. And the escape from life has never been more affordable, available, and immersive. We can spend hours a day wholly engaged with worlds that have nothing to do with our own.
While Lovecraft's legacy is complicated, to say the least (he was a well known racist and anti-semite, and yet was still a pioneer of horror fiction and author of numerous classic stories), he at least was right about this. Other worlds have been and always will be more interesting than our own, and their magnetic pull on us is both undeniably thrilling and dangerous. His brand of horror fiction sought to explore the clash between humankind's call towards these other worlds and their attempts to rationally cope with what they find (unfortunately, the answer is almost always some form of insanity.) It seems as though Lovecraft, as desperate as he was to escape life, was also wary of the consequences one can face from wandering too far off the map.
This core struggle in the Lovecraftian speaks volumes to what people like you and I go through daily, only instead of being faced with unimaginable horror, as Lovecraft's protagonists were, we are offered worlds of endless pleasure. More content than one could ever consume in a lifetime is produced daily; all of it created to draw us away from ourselves. Even more, the plethora of options allows each of us to choose our own flavor of sweet respite. These temptations exist on such a level that it makes you wonder why anyone would settle for just their meager reality, one in which issues with personal life, work-life, mental health are all persistent and undeniable realities.
I should acknowledge that everything I've written comes at the risk of me sounding like some ranting grandpa complaining about those kids with their iPhones and their Facebooks and whatnot. I would never want to imply that escapism is wrong; it's been part of the human experience since the first of our kind began to play games and tell stories. I simply mean to say that the only thing that makes this instinct to run away to other places bad is when we can't (or won't) find our way back out again.
If you're wondering why being lost in a world of infinite distracted pleasure could be a bad thing, I'd like to bring your attention to a pertinent thought experiment known as "The Pleasure Machine" (also sometimes known as the "Experience Machine"). Philosopher Robert Nozick first introduced this hypothetical device in his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. In the experiment, Nozick asks us to imagine a machine that could target our greatest pleasurable desires and manipulate our brain to make us experience them. We would feel as if we were living in a world entirely based on our wildest (and most hedonistic) desires.
Sounds great, right? Nozick wasn't so sure. He came up with a few reasons why people may choose to avoid plugging themselves into the Pleasure Machine. Without getting too technical about them, the gist of his reasoning is that we not only want to choose the types of experiences we are dealing with, but we also want to feel as if those experiences are actually ours. Ultimately he wanted us to question whether it's favorable to experience only simulated pleasure, at the cost of what we know to be our true selves, or not? It's the age-old dilemma of the blissful lie versus an unrelenting reality. When considering this problem, we're forced to ask ourselves whether surrendering entirely to those manufactured experiences is, in a sense, a form of suicide. Well, is it?
That's not a question that I feel truly equipped to answer (sorry, if you're looking for someone to solve these issues, then you came to the wrong guy!). And it's one we will not be able to know the answer to until there's actually a machine like the hypothetical one of Nozick's experiment. Still, until then, we have our surplus of lesser-pleasure machines to test our limits. Obviously, if we use escapism as an excuse to never interface with reality, to avoid dealing with our issues, then that's only a recipe for disaster. One thing I can say for sure is that there are days where a machine like Nozick's seems like the only answer to a world that feels like an endless bleak vacuum that we float through, utterly alone in our experience of the world — but that feeling alone doesn't make it the best answer.
Maybe Nozick and Lovecraft weren't so different after all, even though one talked about infinite pleasure and the other endless horror. They both saw the danger of becoming too entangled in worlds beyond our own and the consequences of losing ourselves for good. I don't want to encourage or discourage any particular behavior here (unless that behavior is destructive, in which case consider yourself very discouraged). Part of being a person is the freedom to choose, and that leaves us with the freedom to try to forget about being a person. All I ask is that the next time you boot up your nearest pleasure machine to take a minute to seriously consider what (or who) it is you're escaping from and whether or not you'll be able to find your way back to yourself.
You look into the wormhole, ready to jump in but hesitating just a second longer. You realize that YOU are the one staring into it, that YOU are in complete control of your own experience, even if you choose to eradicate that experience. The lights from the stars millions of light-years away shine on you, and suddenly their gaze seems less judgemental than before, less of a harsh reflection of yourself. Maybe you could spend a bit more time out here, alone. Floating along with just your own company isn't always such a bad thing after all, and the wormhole will still be here when you need an escape...
Written by Anthony Sanger