The idea of something is not the thing

Earl R Smith II, PhD
DrSmith@Dr-Smith.com

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Let’s say you’re sitting in a movie theater watching a war film. It’s about the battle of Gettysburg – a reenactment of Pickett’s charge. The theater is filled with the sounds of cannon and musket fire. The images graphic. Soldiers on both sides are suffering horrific wounds. Many are dying before your eyes. But are they?

“It was like being there!”

If the producer and director have done their job well, you get something of that feeling. But what is it that is really going on? If you’ve never been in combat, what is your reference point? What is the actual experience all about?

Now let’s move onto the screen. An actor is portraying one of Pickett’s infantrymen. What you see on the screen is only part of what’s going on during the filming. There are cameras, lighting, other actors and a whole range of people working together to get a scene on film. And that actor, let’s say he has never been in combat let alone present at Gettysburg, is trying to experience what it had to be like on that fateful day. And so, he draws on whatever he can, including other movies he has seen, to create the feeling.

Now, sitting next to you is a veteran of the Vietnam war. He is watching the same movie as you are but, I am sure you would accept, his reactions are going to be different. He has been in combat. Memories of that experience collide with the images on the screen and the sounds. The idea of the thing translates into a thingness of its own character.

Some years back, I attended a Fourth of July celebration. The crowd, some 50 or 60 of us, was gathered on a roof deck overlooking the Potomac River where the fireworks barges were moored. We had a front row seat to a spectacular display. The sounds were concussive. You could feel them against your body. As I turned to refresh my drink, I noticed something peculiar. Towards the back of the terrace there was a group talking quietly together. I noticed that they all had been in combat. The fireworks display, which filled the rest of the group with awe, had triggered memories which were producing a significantly different experience.

Somewhere in the world, on a battlefield, there is an individual with a rifle in his hands. There are none of the illusions of the movie or memories of the veterans. It’s a filthy place. Is hungry and thirsty. There is only the immediate peril. The possibility that this heartbeat might be the last. This is the thing and not the idea of the thing.

In each case, there is the idea of being in combat. In each case there is a trigger response to what is happening. But the virtual representations are not the thing. They are something significantly less authentic.

Why is this important? I believe it’s important because increasingly lives are made up of these plastic representations of authentic experience. Nature is something you see on PBS. The dangerous nature of a bear is glossed over by the documentary. (If you doubt that, go out into the woods and see one firsthand.) Lions never seem to quite kill the gazelle they are chasing. We are so disconnected from the reality of nature that some of us go to Yellowstone National Park and try to get a bear to sit behind the steering wheel of our car – and we are appalled to discover that Yogi Bear is a cartoon character and this 400-pound wild animal is not. The idea of the thing is not the thing.

A fundamental precept of Buddhism is that these ideas of things – which we cling to as reality – are the sources of our dissatisfaction and suffering. To understand that the idea of the thing is not the thing is an important step along the path to enlightenment.

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

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