The Red Pill
In the beginning of the film The Matrix we see the protagonist, Neo, slumped asleep in front of his computer screen. "Searching..." it says. Abruptly he is awoken by a knock on the door. "Wake up, Neo" says the computer screen.
Do you ever feel like Neo, searching for something, you know not what, but something, something so big and so pervasive that its clues are everywhere? A fruitless search, yet so compelling you cannot stop even when you are asleep? Don't worry, I'm not going to pretend that I've found it and you haven't, and I'm not going to tell you what it is. That would be impossible. What I will do is illuminate something of the process of being found, touching upon the allegorical movie, The Matrix.
In the next scene Neo, instructed by his computer to "follow the white rabbit," goes with some people (one of whom has a white rabbit tattoo) to a dance club where he meets Trinity. She tells him, "The answer is looking for you and it will find you." Here he has begun to follow the guidance of something from outside the world that he knows. Computers just don't start talking to you, and they don't know who is at the door. In our search, we may have experiences like this. They demonstrate that there is a larger reality out there; that even if we don't know what it is, our search does have an object; we are reassured that whatever it is, it is looking for us as much as we are looking for it. I call this encounter with Trinity "First Contact".
The next scene finds Neo, in his day-job guise of Thomas Anderson, late for work. His boss calls him into his office and bawls him out. "The time has come to make a choice, Mr. Anderson," he says. He is right. Once First Contact has been made, it quickly becomes impossible to continue searching and yet live in the old world. Very soon Neo must decide if his search was in earnest. He is about to be found -- will he allow it or not? And you, my friend: are your spiritual strivings just diversions, comforts to facilitate the maintenance and ease the dolor of life-as-usual? You will find out in the same way Neo finds out.
Powerful forces conspire to keep us where we are. They are the internalized forces of propriety, survival anxiety, guilt, and fear that prevent us from stepping outside the bounds of the conventional world. They conspire to keep us in ordinary jobs, ordinary relationships, ordinary lives. They are none other than agents of the Machine, agents of control, of repression and self-repression. In the film they are FBI-looking types who come for Neo after he returns to his cubicle. But before they get to him he receives a package, an envelope containing a cell phone. As soon as he opens it, it rings. "Hello?" The voice says, "They're coming for you, Neo." He sees the agents coming past the receptionist. "I can guide you, but you must do exactly as I say."
"Why is this happening to me? What did I do?" cries Neo. When the reality we intuitively reject actually starts to unravel, when we see what a transformation of life really means, we are frightened. But Neo trusts himself entirely to the guidance of the voice on the phone, which choreographs his every movement to make good his escape from the Agents. When this voice from beyond the world we have known calls to us, we do our best to follow this requirement of absolute trust, but the instructions we receive call for greater and greater courage. We "trust our guidance" as far as we can, until we come up against a limit that we are afraid to cross. So it is with Neo, who cannot navigate the skyscraper ledge. Retreating from the precipice, he falls into the hands of the Agents.
The Agents reiterate the choice offered by Mr. Anderson's boss. They lay out both his identities: the reputable software programmer, Mr. Anderson, and the hacker, Neo. "One of these lives has future and the other does not." He cannot go on living two separate lives. The time to choose has come. We all have an opportunity like this, to defy the Agents of normality irrevocably.
The internal and external Agents of our enculturation to the Machine, to the status quo of our hurting planet, are dedicated to the prevention of our transformation. But it will find us nonetheless. Morpheus, the Transformer or the Transformed One, brings Neo to his headquarters. "You may have spent several years looking for me, Neo, but I've spent my whole life looking for you."
Neo's search was impossible, and so is yours. The tools he was using were the tools of the system he was embedded in, and could reveal only more of that self-same system. It is like a two-dimensional person in Flatland searching for the third dimension. He looks north, south, east and west, but he cannot look up, or even conceive of up. Yet, the search is not in vain, even if it is impossible, because the search is what calls the attention of the Finder.
"You are here because you know something," says Morpheus. "You don't know what it is, but you can feel it. Something is wrong with the world."
Something is wrong with the world. Do you feel a chill when you read those words? Something about the world just doesn't add up. The seamless reality we are offered couldn't be real. It just doesn't make sense. The prescriptions for how to live, for how to be human, don't make sense. Something in us says, "That can't be right," but how can we envision an alternative if that is all we have known? At this stage, we try to make lifestyle changes, or even go live on a commune, but we find we have not escaped the Matrix; we have brought it with us. And what is the Matrix? Morpheus identifies it as "the world that has been pulled over your eyes that blinds you to the truth: that you are a slave." Later he shows Neo the world behind the facade, a wrecked, desolate planet with dusty gales howling across a scorched sky. It is a good picture of Hell, and indeed, behind the facade of normal life, the office parks and shopping centers, the phony affluence of plastic and convenience, lies a Hell in the making, for all of this is built upon the ruin of nature, culture, health, and spirit.
Morpheus continues, "No one can be told about the Matrix. You have to experience it for yourself." Now, you may have read plenty of material that justifies your feeling that something is wrong with the world. Yet, you are still trapped inside it, and you find that you cannot escape because there is nowhere to escape to. The problem is that yes, you can be told some of the things that are wrong, but these are all superficial manifestations of something deeper and vaster. That something is indeed so deep and so vast that it is beyond the reach of words. As Morpheus says, it must be experienced.
Finally Morpheus offers Neo a choice: the red pill or the blue pill. The red pill will show him the truth; the blue pill will take him back to his old life. "This is your own and only chance," he says. In reality we have infinite chances, repeated chances, and one day we will choose the red pill. The question is, will we choose it when we are young and have a lifetime of creativity in front of us, or later when time and youth are exhausted? Here is a paradox: each of the infinite chances we have to awaken from the Matrix is also our one and only chance. The urgency is real.
The red pill is something that rocks your world, an experience that changes forever who you are and how you see everything. Afterwards, things that had once seemed so real, beliefs that were once axiomatic, become transparent, unreal. For example, the fears that once bound us become absurd, and we are no longer controlled by fear of losing health insurance, or people disapproving of us, maybe even of dying. It is not an all-or-nothing affair: we might have many red pills in the course of a lifetime, and the biggest one of all is called dying. Each one, though, liberates us from some of the rules and beliefs that have bound us. As a result we gain new powers. Things that would have been impossible to the old self in the old world become possible. Morpheus' words describe our new relationship to the conventional rules that bind the majority: "Some rules can be bent; others can be broken."