My comments to the student body this morning, edited and expanded for this format:
Yesterday my 7 year old son, completely out of the blue , said to me “Dad, wasn’t it interesting when the guy said “Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.”
Recognize it? Anyone? Yes, it is from Avatar, when Jake Sully compared his experience when embodied as his avatar to his self-identity in his normal world of being human. His avatar experience has become his “true world.”
Mind you, my seven year-old said this to me an entire month after we saw the movie, and we had not previously discussed this quotation. Somehow, this quote had been lingering and ruminating in my son’s mind for an entire month, and he was still chewing over it. Why would Jake say that, what does that mean?
Students: what does Jake’s saying mean to you—why was he feeling his avatar experience was his new “true world”? [Some discussion followed]
Surely there are more literal interpretations, but I want to reach more the metaphorical significance: I would suggest to you that there are three reasons why Jake discovers his avatar experience to be his true world.
First, inserting himself first slowly, then fully into Pandoran society, Jake finds himself deeply drawn into the social network of the Navi. He becomes a member of their tribe, connected by deep bonds in ways that seemed much deeper and more significant than the shallow relationships he shared with his fellow Earthlings. The research from sociology is clear: social networks, meaningful and warm relationships, bring great happiness and fulfillment to most people. As Jonathan Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesis, “Human beings are in some ways like bees. We evolved to live in intensely social groups, and we don’t do as well when freed from hives.” When Jake and his new lover say to each other “I see you,” they are forming a social bond that makes Jake’s avatar existence truly his “true world.”
A second explanation for Jake’s finding such significance in his new reality lies in his experience on Pandora of “flow.” This is the amazing, immersive sensation people have when they are fully engaged in tackling mentally and physically challenging obstacles; it is best described and explained in the book of the same name by Csíkszentmihály. As an avatar, Jake scales mountains and flies atop wild creatures, and in so doing, soars himself to new heights of emotional fulfillment and rewards. I know our basketball players experience this because I can observe it, when the team comes together into full concentration upon the challenging task of surmounting a tough opposition, the play “flows” with symphony and the power of concentration.
And finally, Jake in his Avatar goes from being a tool in someone’s else army to being an autonomous free agent, making his own decisions, andmaking the decision to be in genuine service to a cause greater than himself. As Nick Kristof wrote in a recent New York Times column,
one thing that can make a lasting difference to your contentment is to work with others on a cause larger than yourself. I see that all the time. I interview people who were busy but reluctantly undertook some good cause because (sigh!) it was the right thing to do. Then they found that this “sacrifice” became a huge source of fulfillment and satisfaction. The implication is that we are hard-wired to be altruistic. To put it another way… generosity feels so good.
I know many people who want to go to Haiti right now, which I realize seems counter-intuitive– who would want to be there right now? But they want to go because they realize the experience they will have will be among the most meaningful one they can possible experience; it will be an experience of living in the “true world,” living fully and meaningfully.
So students, I want to ask you too to consider:what are your true worlds, and where does it feel like you are just sleepwalking, living lightly as if only in a dream? Consider, and choose– choose to live in social networks, live for the next challenge and for the fully immersive experiences that come from confronting challenges, choose to live and work for a cause larger than yourself, and choose to live, like Jake, in your true world.