Today, we set finance aside and celebrate family, friends, food and football. We are told this all started when the Mayflower Pilgrims thanked God they had survived the winter of 1621 with a harvest feast. But wait -- almost half of the Mayflower's ill-prepared passengers died that winter. So, in reality, the surviving Pilgrims thanked God for freezing their neighbors instead of themselves. Those Pilgrims would better have thanked the Wampanoags, who saved their sorry asses by sharing their winter stores and teaching them how to grow the crops they later harvested. To top it off, they brought venison to the Pilgrims' harvest feast, making the first Thanksgiving a heartier meal than the Pilgrims deserved.
Conventional "gratitude" always tends to be some version of, "Thank God he's got it worse than me." But thanking God for devastating your neighbor instead of yourself seems blasphemous. Maybe we should give thanks -- but for what and to whom?
Two recent TV series that play with alternate realities got me thinking about this. Much as a fish wouldn't know how good the water is until it's gasping in a fishnet, we don't really know our blessings until we are broke or in jail or stricken by illness, weather, violence, or idiotic leaders. We wouldn't know to be grateful that none of those have yet happened to us if we couldn't imagine the alternate realities of those unlucky bastards to whom they have.
The robot "hosts" who populate the fantasy playland of HBO's Westworld are asked sometimes if they have ever questioned the nature of their reality. If they are still operating as programmed, they react as a fish might if asked how the water is. But eventually, some of the hosts start feeling that their world is "wrong." That's when the robots start to acquire what we humans are pleased to call "consciousness."
Something similar happens in Amazon Prime's The Man in the High Castle. High Castle is based on a short novel by Philip K. Dick. The plot starts out as "what if" alternative history, in this case what would life be like if the Germans and Japanese had won World War II and divided North America between them. But unlike in typical alternative histories, some of the characters in High Castle, like the hosts in Westworld, begin to feel they are living in a wrong world.
In Dick's novel, that feeling is sparked by a "banned" book depicting a world in which the Allies had won the war -- that is to say, depicting our world. In one short passage, one of the characters goes into a meditative trance and temporarily finds himself in our San Francisco. Which reality is "true" remains ambiguous throughout. In the TV series, the sense that their world is wrong is sparked not by a single book, but by the appearance of many actual newsreels mysteriously imported from those alternate realities, each showing a different way things might have been. The mere knowledge of other possibilities inspires a resistance movement, even though no one knows how it will benefit them.
These shows have an existentialist undercurrent. The late Berkeley philosophy professor Hubert Dreyfus taught a course focusing on three of existentialism's founding thinkers, Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche. It's free on iTunes University. (That so much great education can be had for nothing makes me wonder what a quarter million dollars of tuition, room, board and beer really gets you, but let's leave that for another day.) According to Dreyfus, Kierkegaard's main idea was that faith is justified because all realities are possible; Dostoyevsky's that our realities are born from the unanticipated consequences of past actions; and Nietzsche's that we have our own duty to act, even if never knowing what'll come of it.
So, Westworld is right that our ability to question the nature of our reality, to sense the wrongness of our world, and to act on that sense, makes us human. High Castle is right that we should act in the here and now in faith that reality -- for someone, somewhere, someday -- will be better for it.
All this reminds me of Frank Capra's corny holiday classic, It's a Wonderful Life. In one of cinema's earliest depictions of an alternate reality, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is stuck in Bedford Falls. He can't enlist in World War II because he lost part of his hearing as a kid when he pulled his younger brother Harry from an icy pond. Harry goes on to be a war hero, sinking a U-Boat hunting a troopship. Meanwhile, George, depressed and facing ruin, contemplates suicide. Diverted from his fatal course, he concludes the world would've been better had he never been born. Clarence the angel shows him the alternate reality that would have resulted.
In that reality, no one's ever heard of George, and Bedford Falls has become a crassly commercialized dystopia. It all feels wrong. Finally George demands to see his brother. Clarence takes him to a cemetery. Harry had drowned as a child in an icy pond. George insists it isn't true, that Harry went to war and saved an entire troopship. "Every man on that troopship died," Clarence poignantly tells George. "Harry wasn't there to save them because you weren't there to save Harry."
Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche couldn't have said it better.
Later, the Wampanoags were almost exterminated. Only about 4,500 remain today. In contrast, there are 35 million living Mayflower descendants around the world. That's our reality, and it feels wrong. Yet, those Mayflower descendants include my wife and kids. Realities are messy like that. The very least I can do, then, is give thanks to the Wampanoags for the human kindness they showed my family's ancestors 400 years ago. I wish each of them -- living, dead and yet to be born -- the better reality they deserve. I wish that for us all.