it’s all made up


Note: this is the first of two talks. The second is “No Fixed Point in Which We Can Rest.”

Here’s an alleged quote from the actor Edward G. Robinson about the inner craft of acting. I think it also might apply to ourselves and our daily lives. He wrote, simply:

Every one us bears within him the possibility of all passions, all destinies of life in all its manifold forms. Nothing human is foreign to us.

This quotation was voiced by another actor, Chazz Palmintieri, in a tribute to Edward G. that has aired on the film channel, Turner Classic Movies.

A while ago, I had an experience that startled me at the time – stunned me, in fact: What I saw was that it’s all made up. Everything we see, everything we live, is made up – is constructed and crafted by none other than ourselves. It’s our consensual reality, a term used in a book I read some time ago. The whole play, whether sublime or ridiculous in the prevailing space-time, is something we’ve crafted within (or out of, if you prefer) our own consciousness. And that’s what comes up for me when I hear Edward G. Robinson’s words. We all have our parts to play in this ongoing adventure of life. None of what we do or say or cause to happen has any solid basis in fact.

Now, of course we can’t deny that things happen, events happen. Ancient Rome did rise and fall, as the writer Edward Gibbon recounted in his classic history. The African continent and its peoples were looted and colonized by European adventurers, as was our own continent of North America. Our indigenous people were first robbed of their civilizations and then subjected to trials and indignities we can only imagine and read about today – as were the people imported from Africa and other parts East, and so unceremoniously enslaved to serve the majority population (only to become, for a time, the majority themselves, making themselves more threatening to the majority). No book-banning denialism can eradicate that history, or its deathly legacy.

Parallel with these events and these movements throughout time (which, by the way, is another of the constructs we’ve made part of our scenario), artists like Michelangelo, genius polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci, thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, poets like Homer and Lord Byron, mystics like Meister Eckhart and Teresa of Ávila and Thomas Merton all lived and left us much to enrich our own civilization (or what’s left of it). And these are only the Europeans. We also have thinkers and commentators and writers and historians like James Baldwin and Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende and a host of others who have recorded for us the tide of human evolution and progress, along with its various cruelties.

But here’s the thing! All we know about all of this history, about this play, is what we’re told happened. And what we’re told thrived within the consciousness of the people who were living in the times of these sometimes horrendous, sometimes beautiful, always momentous tales. They made it up as they went along. And the same process is in place now, in our own time. Just think about that! It’s all made up!! What a liberating realization that can be – for all of us.

None of this stuff existed before we made it up (as far as we know). And it exists now only because we have given it life. In our minds. And every one of those minds, as Edward G. Robinson said, “bears within him the possibility of all passions, all destinies of life in all its manifold forms. Nothing human is foreign to us.” To any of us. That’s our reality. Even our notions of predestination and evolution and karma and the holy of holies, “God’s plan,” are constructs of consciousness that we have crafted and embraced to help us make sense of things. At least, that’s how I see it. (Now, I don’t want you to believe me on this. Check it in your own experience, and then embrace it or not. Knowing in Unknowing.)

So now, when we are experiencing our own suffering or considering the suffering we see being imposed upon others – and indeed upon our very ideas of civilization and society – we can remember that we are ourselves the authors of the play we are living. We all have our parts to act out. We may feel that we are guided by an all-powerful Director (bigger than John Huston or Steven Spielberg or, dare I say it, God), but ultimately, the roles in the story are played by us. And we have within us all possibilities. And that’s what determines our behavior and attitudes in all our moments.

Will we hate or will we love? Will we condemn or will we forgive? Will we shame or will we understand? Are we willing to walk in the moccasins of those whose actions repel us? Who can say?

Please don’t answer that now. Just be with it.