Truth is freedom – Living with “unreality collapse”

My life has involved a number of challenging situations where I had to pick between alternate and mutually exclusive realities being presented to me. Doing so has involved the pain of relinquishing a false reality. In the process of doing so, I have come to learn how to cope with “unreality collapse”, and indeed to thrive upon it.

“Enlightenment is a destructive process. It has nothing to do with becoming better or being happier. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It’s seeing through the facade of pretence. It’s the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true.”

― Adyashanti

Any of us can become infected with a “feeling of knowing” that is attached to a falsehood. Our ego can feel hurt when our false belief is challenged or crushed, since foolishness and folly trigger difficult emotions that we naturally wish to reject. It is then common and ordinary to engage in a series of denial and distraction strategies. A typical one is to denounce the countervailing position, in order to relieve us of feeling our own ambivalence about our opinions.

I would like to offer you three of these situations as examples of how I personally have had to confront this “unreality collapse” phenomenon. The last example is in my chosen profession of the telecoms industry, but this is really about a core issue of being human, and dealing with our inherent fallibility. Nonetheless, we face an impending “reality shock” as telecoms gets devoured alive by the software industry.

Collapse #1: Escape from the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult

I have alluded a few times over the years to a difficult part of my childhood: being raised with one parent (and extended family) in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whilst the other parent has never been a member. This experience has had repercussions throughout my life, and I am still living with them.

To be ferociously explicit, the JWs are (in my informed view) a cruel, cold and nasty cult. They subvert fraternal love, and invert it into a vile prison for the innocent person of good conscience. Their members are deliberately regressed into a childlike state of dependency, with the organisation’s leadership as the abusive step parent, offering apparent safety in exchange for psychic surrender.

The shunning process that the JWs use to punish free thinking and apostasy often results in psychological trauma, family breakup, and even suicide. The cognitive dissonance required to believe in a loving deity, whilst simultaneously being so absolutely unloving to one’s fellow human, is quite breath-taking. The harm to the individual and the growth of their identity is horrible, as they lose a sense of calibration of their ego.

Anybody can fall victim to a cult: all it takes is a difficult life transition to weaken your defences, an unmet need for meaningful spiritual work, and strong desire for a sense of belonging. Having regrettably been raised half in one, I often sense the parallels of enforced conformity of thought when in other contexts (often corporate or political). Everybody is vulnerable to these forces.

As the elder child, this parental division left me with an unresolved dilemma: which cosmology to follow? There was a related unconscious fear of parental rejection in making such a choice. By around the age of ten I had decided there was this alternative belief system called “science” that I rather liked, with some rather attractive “alternative facts” to the JW cosmology.

I chose rationalism over a dogmatic faith in an institution manifestly disconnected from reality. In a memorable conversation with my grandmother as a child, I was asked if I believed in The Truth™, only to answer that I didn’t, since I preferred the truth. Thus began a life journey in which I would never again meekly accept The Truth™ when offered as the truth.

Collapse #2: “Coming out” and having a heteronormativity bypass

It is not a secret that I irredeemably prefer cute guys to curvy girls, and that this took a while to fully figure out and accept. I have two daughters entering their teenage years, as well as a lovely boyfriend. This meant going through a tough “unreality collapse” nearly a decade ago.

I have often been asked “when did you know you were gay?”. I tend to swivel my eyes and shrug my shoulders, since the answer to this question is impaled on two difficult words: “know” and “gay”. The former frames it as a “think” rather than “feel” matter, and the latter gives you a binary and culturally-defined category to fit in (or not). We are fluid, gender is complex, and sexuality has many facets.

The psychic baggage I had to ditch on the road to reality was rather burdensome. It was not merely a false belief that being heterosexual is morally upstanding, and homosexuality is not. Nor was it the guilt and shame and my identity and actions in the context of a straight marriage. What I had to offload was more like a false conjoined twin of “straight Martin”, that had to be left at the roadside to die alone.

To cope with conflicting beliefs, we engage in a process of “splitting”. When this goes far enough, we separate and become psychotic. Our sense of who we are is lost, and we inhabit a series of personas, none of which really represent us. Our actions in each persona might conflict with the beliefs and values of another persona, but their separation keeps us viable and seemingly safe.

The termination of this state of affairs was traumatic for me. I could not reconcile the promises I had made when I married, with my inner and immutable reality. I became very depressed. It took a fear of approaching suicide, and the intervention and help of many good and kind people, to bring me through this dark period.

I left a woman I deeply cared about, in order to meet my own essential need to be an integrated human. I describe this as being like having a limb ripped off without anaesthetic. Yet today I feel healed and recovered. I have a good relationship with the mother of my children, who in turn are both flourishing.

I have become a far humbler and more compassionate person as a result of this experience. Any of us might face a similar hardship, if we choose to ignore reality for long enough under intense social pressures to conform. This episode has taught me that passing through an awful “unreality collapse” can bring me to a place of peace and happiness over time.

Collapse #3: Defecting from the Church of Bandwidth

Now for something that for many readers will be closer to a shared experience. We face a very difficult transition in the telecoms business, as some common beliefs about the networking world are unhelpful or simply wrong.

When I entered telecoms in 2001 from the neighbouring IT industry, I had a strong urge to make sense of it and to find the basic intellectual and theoretical foundations. The search initially led me to a group of intelligent and well-meaning people who were advocating the displacement of the incumbent “smart network” with a “stupid” one.

This aligned to a period where broadband networks were just taking off, both fixed and mobile. There was a body of theory that seemed to justify their beliefs, and I enthusiastically supported them. My Telepocalypse blog of that era correctly diagnosed many of the ills of the industry. I foretold of how vertical integration would not be able to resist the onslaught of “over the top” voice, messaging and media applications.

However, I had niggling doubts since there seemed to be a lack of rigour and robustness to their theories, at least compared to what I was used to in computing. After all, my undergraduate degree was in Mathematics and Computation, which gave me a very solid grounding in the core theory.

When I was Chief Analyst for Telco 2.0, I had written about the need to “slice and dice” the network by quantity and quality. I believe I did a strong and prescient analysis, one that anticipated many future trends, even if I lacked the buzzwords to describe them. What I could not find was the equivalent of the formal methods of software design that I had studied at university.

So where was the basic theory and science? Missing! Over time, I came to understand what had happened. There had been a conflation of quantity and quality: rising bandwidth had masked the lack of a basic theory of quality of networks. The incumbent paradigm of “quantity with a quality” was backwards; we needed a “quantity of quality” instead.

I discovered we were missing an essential branch of mathematics, akin to what had been developed in the 18th century for physics, or the early 20th century for computation. One of my great and recent joys has been to participate in documenting and clarifying this new science of quality attenuation. The engineering of packet network performance with predictable safety margins is so fresh that you get ink stains from just looking at it.

Furthermore, we had made many expedient but tragically misguided choices when the present Internet was architected. We have essentially built a skyscraper on sand, with no solid foundations. Every wobble has armies of people climbing to cover the cracks and correct the lean, without ever understanding the root cause of why the structure is so problematic.

Thankfully, the experiences earlier in my life have equipped me well for this. I now ignore any external consensus that is rooted in blind faith. The inner discomfort of letting go old unhelpful beliefs is very ordinary. When you abandon the need for approval from those heading the wrong way, a lot of new and exciting possibilities open up.

From darkness emerges the light

These are not the only examples in my life. Having a child with a disability stripped away misconceptions of invulnerability and fairness. Making sense of the socio-political and the role of psychopaths in society has reframed and reversed many of my beliefs. Back in telecoms again, the whole “net neutrality” issue is essentially one giant mass hysteria, utterly detached from the reality of statistical multiplexing.

There are some common threads to all of these stories.

Everybody is, at some level, trapped in a prison of false certainty. The world is full of deceit and misbelief. When we get that uncomfortable sense that something is wrong, it is important to pay attention to it. For if we follow it, we may find that it leads us to a ventilation shaft of fresh thinking, through which we can crawl to escape.

How we react to this process of “unreality collapse”, and overcome our delusions, affects our ability to perform in the world. Reality must ultimately triumph, since it is naturally self-consistent, and requires no energy or effort to maintain it that way. Meanwhile, falsehood is pricey, lies are expensive, and maintaining unreality leads us to catastrophe if those costs are ignored.

Indeed, untruth is the lethal weapon wielded by those who wish to massage our perception, misdirect our thoughts, and manipulate our behaviour. To prosper we must swap the short-term ignorant bliss of comfortable false certainty, and in return gain long-term safety from acknowledging a possibly difficult reality.

The incentive is simple: truth is freedom.

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