Red Pill, Blue Pill, or Purple Pill? Escaping the Matrix in the New Year

It’s another new year. Like many other people, I’m taking stock and considering choices. Intention and action are the engine and wheels of personal change. This issue surfaced for me in the latest Matrix movie which I watched over the holidays. Without delving into the complex plot, the Matrix movies center around the idea of choice. Taking the Blue Pill keeps you “asleep” and trapped in the existing reality. Taking the Red Pill opens your eyes to what is really going on and puts you on the path to revolution and rebelling against the state of things. In the past, I have tended to opt for the Red Pill and the path of disruptive change. More recently I’ve started to wonder about an alternative – that of a Purple Pill.

Here the choice is the middle path between red and blue. Rather than try to overturn the current reality, you work to nudge it in a positive direction. We often want change to happen sooner, and there is indeed a lot of change that is desperately needed in the world. Change agents are impatient and unwilling to settle for marginal progress. George Bernard Shaw offered this perspective, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

A concern that change agents have is that in playing along with the establishment you get played by the establishment. The establishment has much vested in the status quo and maintaining the Blue Pill reality. Yet, the problem with the Red Pill path is that it entails a vicious fight as in the violent Matrix. Victory is elusive and the battle sparks a repeating loop of retribution. The Purple Pill offers no guarantee of success but it offers a steady and sustained path that cuts between good and bad, right and wrong. 

In the short frame, the prevailing reality is often distressing and the pace of change seems frustrating. It is tempting to go all out and often flame out. Yet, when we zoom out, it is possible to see how much progress has been made in so many fields – from education to human rights to hunger – over time. 

This choice is also in play with New Year’s resolutions. We start with a burst of intention and commitment but quit when we don’t see results as quickly as we might hope for. The literature on habits suggests small and sustained steps are a better bet for generating results. James Clear of Atomic Habits states: “You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.” So here, the path here is neither taking the Blue Pill of complacency nor the Red Pill of urgency.  The Purple Pill works slowly in small and sustained doses. Martin Luther King evoked this notion with the work of social justice. He said that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

As I ponder the year ahead, I plan to take more of the Blue Pill in the new year and tuck the Red Pill back into the medicine cabinet. I hope to hold intention close and lean into committed action, and to do so with greater patience. 

Sustained intention and action are expressed by L.R. Knost in this evocative reminder that we can travel light in the face of darkness:

“Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”

If Life is a Game, Are We Playing the Squid Game?

Like many millions of people around the world, I watched the hit Squid Game Netflix series. At a base level, it is a gripping thriller. At a deeper level, it is an exploration of human nature and culture. I offer some reflections here while trying to avoid any spoilers. 

Material gains. Magnified dissatisfaction. 

Squid Game resonates with Korean viewers because it speaks to the inequality that has become pervasive there. South Korea, which was once as poor as India in my childhood, is now the 11th wealthiest economy in the world by per capita income, surging ten-fold since 1970. This kind of meteoric rise creates its own dysfunctional dynamics. 

While South Korea is exceptional in terms of economic growth, we live in an age of exponential change and social mobility the world over. Success is linked to growth and measured by the material gains you chart over the course of your life such as wealth, career, and popularity — all the way down to your social media following. Furthermore, it is not just the progress you make but also about how you stack up against the gains made by others. And it never seems quite enough. Even in the rarified millionaire class, a millionaire is relatively poor compared to the thousands of individuals whose wealth scales into the billions, tens of billions, and hundreds of billions. If modern life is a race to the top, we are as doomed for failure as the participants in Squid Game.  We are set up to lose. 

Inequality is a Race to the Bottom

Even as we strive to get ahead, doing so is often a race to the bottom. As inequality has increased, with many South Koreans deeply in debt, unemployment is at 22 percent, nearly half of the elderly live in poverty. An average apartment in Seoul now averages upwards of a half-million dollars. Squid Game speaks to the sense of desperation of those trapped in debt and poverty. For those unable to make it, life can be a dog-eat-dog existence. This is a pattern present across the wider world. In the Pulitzer-Prize winning book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, the author who lived in a Mumbai slum for a year found that the people in the slum preyed on each other in a struggle to survive. The Squid Game sets this vicious cycle in motion by creating a fiercely competitive dynamic. People form and break alliances. This very human element of friendship and betrayal may be the most compelling aspect of the fantasy series. In life, many of our deepest disappointments are betrayals by others. This attribute of Squid Game is particularly haunting. Almost every character in the show lets others down. 

Freud observed: “We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to other men. The suffering which comes from this last source is perhaps more painful to us than any other.”

The Game is a Collective Choice

In modern life and Squid Game, once you opt-in, you can’t easily opt-out. In real life, you take on the responsibility of family and bills. As in the Squid Game, the game we play in life is a collective game that we get locked into. To truly shift things, requires a shared decision and cooperation to change the game. There are some societies that have chosen not to play the likes of the Squid Game. These show up as the happiest places on Earth — the Nordic countries, New Zealand, and Canada (https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/happiest-countries-in-the-world). These societies have prioritized giving all people a strong start through good education, created a broad safety net for all, and prioritized holistic wellbeing that values relationships, vacations, and nature. The choice most nations have made, however, is not one that prioritizes individual rather than collective happiness. In far too many places, we’re trapped together in the tentacles of competition, playing against each other.

In children’s games, the ultimate purpose of a game is having fun. In the Squid Game, the game is not fun and there are dire consequences for losing. This is done by creating winner takes all pay-offs that force competition. If we see through this plot, scarcity is a manufactured reality. In real life, as in Squid Game,  there is truly enough for everyone if shared. There is no need to pit ourselves against one another. We can choose to play a different game than the likes of the Squid Game.    

Changing the Game

Martin Luther King offered us an alternate paradigm of success that framed winning as “letting no person be defeated.” This “we’re in it together” perspective and “we can win together” paradigm is an altogether different game.

Squid Game offers the Korean concept of Gganbu which means close friends who have each other’s backs. This is not how things play out in the series and the consequences of cutthroat competition are clear. Martin Luther King called out this dynamic as well. He said, We must learn to live together as brothers or perish as fools. Squid Game is a parable for how we often find ourselves playing a fool’s game. But unlike the characters in the TV show, the game is not over for us. We can still choose to play a different way. 

Power: The Love of Power v. Power of Love

Mural from Greensboro, NC

I read a bit of the book The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. It is a book about what it takes to win… by whatever means necessary. The laws that Greene offers look like this:

  • Never Put Too Much Trust in Friends, Learn How to Use Enemies.
  • Conceal Your Intentions: Friends are more likely to betray you in haste as they are more prone to envy.
  • Court Attention at All Costs: As everything is judged by appearance, you must stand out. 
  • Get Others to Do the Work for You, but Always Take the Credit: Never do for yourself what the efforts of others can do for you.

Greene doesn’t focus on the ethical considerations and the greater consequences of actions. It is all about destroying foes and friends to get ahead. Yet, the “stories of success” are partial vignettes. I imagine the practitioners of these ruthless actions were constantly looking over their shoulders to see who may be coming after them or fretting about being outdone. Needless to say, peace and happiness were not exactly what they were succeeding at. 

Bailey the Bus from GSO Vibes

The question of power, then, is quite incomplete without asking about power for what ends. Jimi Hendrix placed power in contrast with love. He stated, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” The power of love was the focus of The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, which is about the relationship between the poet Rumi and his philosopher friend, Shams. A sampling of these rules indicates that they are far different from the ones in the 48 Laws of Power: 

  • How we see God is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves; we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we.
  • Intellect ties people in knots and risks nothing, but love dissolves all tangles and risks everything.
  • What does patience mean? It means to look at the thorn and see the rose, to look at the night and see the dawn. 

The latter set or rules are about conquering the self rather than others. The Buddhist monk Tich Nhat Hanh explained that this is what real power is. It is not derived from the outside but what we cultivate within ourselves. The things we get from the outside — fame, status, beauty, possessions — come and go regardless of how much we may want them. The things we give ourselves — self-respect, compassion, purpose — are the things we control and can hold on to. 

Street mural in Greensboro

Gandhi, Mandela, and MLK found a way to fuse these notions of internal and external power. They used internal power — intention and compassion — as a force to organize and change the world. Gandhi called this Satyagraha — or truth force. It was generated from within. Nelson Mandela, who was less spiritually oriented than Gandhi, also saw this connection. He explained that you can’t truly change society unless you first change yourself.  

Art by Lyndon Rego

The 48 Laws of Power claims to offer a path to success but ultimately sets us up to fail. For power derived from the outside is tenuous and fleeting. And because the things that matter most and make the most difference are not about finding ways to defeat your enemies but to help everyone win. Martin Luther King stated this eloquently in his Love your Enemies sermon in 1957: Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual.

Love & Liberation — What we can learn from the lives of great change agents (Part 4 of an exploration of suffering & transformation)

Mural in Greensboro, NC

In this final of four blog posts on suffering and transformation, I wanted to explore how hardship is the crucible for helping us become our higher selves. A crucible is a container where objects are subjected to great heat so they can be remade. The lives of great change agents, people who became great souls and transformative leaders, were shaped by suffering that they transformed into immense good.

Take Gandhi. Gandhi was a young lawyer during the colonial British Empire. He tried hard to make it in the system. As a young man, he set out to become a barrister in London. Having passed the bar, the young lawyer was engaged for an assignment in apartheid-era South Africa. On a journey, he purchased a first-class ticket and, dressed smartly in a Western suit, claimed his seat. A fellow passenger complained about his presence in the cabin to the conductor. When asked what he was doing there. Gandhi produced his ticket and credentials which was met with a sneer; he was told that only Whites could sit in a first class cabin. When Gandhi refused to budge, he was thrown off the train into the cold night. Shivering on a deserted platform, Gandhi had an awakening about discrimination. It could have turned to hate, but it didn’t. 

Nelson Mandela, perhaps the greatest leader in recent times, spent 27 years jailed by the government on an isolated island in South Africa. He emerged with a powerful message about reconciliation that steered South Africa to a remarkably peaceful transition to democracy. Martin Luther King, Jr. too was repeatedly beaten and imprisoned in the struggle for equality in the US. He was consistent in his call for freedom and love. In each of these lives, great injustice led not to anger and revenge but empathy and compassionate action. Why did this happen? Here’s what I see. 

Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King, Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and others known for compassionate actions spent much time in contemplation that radically transformed how they experienced the world and engaged in it (see the story of the Laughing Buddha — http://spiritualsushi.com/the-way-out-of-suffering-lies-within-part-3-on-transforming-suffering/).

In an interview, Mandela was asked how it was that he came to embrace forgiveness and reconciliation after all that had been done to him by the apartheid regime. He explained that his many years alone and in silence in prison had enabled him to see his own soul, his own failings, and need for forgiveness. In this encounter with his soul, he became committed to the path of forgiveness and reconciliation for all peoples.

Gandhi expressed this very idea as Satyagraha or truth-force which encompasses three principles:

Satya/Truth – commitment to openness, honesty and fairness
Ahimsa/Nonviolence – the refusal to inflict injury upon others
Tapasya/Sacrifice – a willingness to sacrifice oneself in action

Sacrifice in Satyagraha is a test of love. Martin Luther King explained: “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.” This alchemy of turning bad into good is connected to practice of “attend and befriend” (http://spiritualsushi.com/attend-befriend-part-2-engaging-transforming-suffering/) discussed explored in an earlier post. 

In contrast, many other freedom fighters channel exploitation and inequality into rage. They turn adversity into a call to defeat the adversary by any means “necessary.” In the bargain, they can lose their soul and start to mirror much of what they started out fighting against. 

Great change agents, in contrast, operate from a place of oneness and love for all people, even their adversaries (http://spiritualsushi.com/one-love/). Martin Luther King stated, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Martin Luther King believed that it is possible to resist evil without resorting to violence and hate: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him.” Elsewhere he said, “In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you.” 

This path seeks the high ground and is willing to take the long road. There is the belief that ends don’t justify the means and that justice can take time to unfold. As MLK eloquently stated, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Nonviolence is the path chosen not because it is easy or expedient but because it is morally right. 

National Museum of African American History and Culture

With this moral clarity, these great change agents were willing to put themselves on the line. They led from the front, by example, in protest marches and public fasts, being beaten and imprisoned, and, as in the case of Gandhi and Mandela, encountering a violent death at the end. The day before his assassination and perhaps anticipating his end, MLK acknowledged difficult days ahead and said, “it really doesn’t matter, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.” 

Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Mother Teresa made the difficult journey up the mountaintop of freedom and justice with love and grace because they also simultaneously journeyed up an inner mountain to rendezvous with the soul within. To truly “be the change you want to see in the world,” you have to authentically become it. Gandhi’s words are a call to action and a call to our own transformation. 

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Further back in time, another agent of liberation, the Buddha, made a similar call. He indicated that he would be reborn until all beings were free. I believe he was calling us to be reborn as Bodhisattvas of liberation much like the great change agents. Like other great souls, he demonstrated that the way to create our capacity for courage and compassion in the world is through inner work. This was work, the Buddha said, that we must each do for ourselves: 

No one saves us but ourselves

No one can and no one may

We ourselves must walk the path

Buddhas only show the way 

As someone who has spent a lifetime working on social change, I am challenged by the examples of these great souls and the way they pointed to. Moved by suffering they saw in the world, they stepped up to address injustice at great personal risk. The difficult struggles they waged were powered not with anger and hate but with compassion and love. And– ultimately — they sought not just liberation from injustice in the world, but liberation from the animosity that suffering can create within us. Through their lives, these great souls shine a light on the path to fostering great change and liberation. It is a path that flows from within us into the world. It is a journey towards love made in the company of the soul. It is a journey that they beckon us to join. In doing so, our suffering is transformed into grace, a sacrifice offered on the highest altar of love. 

Following this series on suffering, I’ll turn to the other side of the coin — the pursuit of happiness. I welcome your insights and experience on the nature of suffering and the path of transformation.

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