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.”

Dealing with Disruption: Of Black Elephants and Blind Spots

Disruption is the word of the day, almost every day. Things that take a long time to build can collapse quickly. Afghanistan is a case in point. And there is disruption from COVID, technological change, and disasters. 

Sometimes big and catastrophic change is the result of an unforeseeable crisis like the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. But more often, the patterns are present and hidden in plain sight. In looking at the recent flip in power in Afghanistan it is possible to see all the indicators that we missed or simply ignored because we were not tuned to the signals out there. This is a black elephant. 

A black swan is a rare disruptive event caused by our blind spots. A black elephant is similarly disruptive but it is like the elephant in the room, visible but ignored. 

We are all subject to this tendency. There is more information available to us than ever, yet we tend to be tuned to a narrow feed. We tend to listen to the same sources and people. Social media — and even mainstream media — is increasingly an echo chamber of similar agendas and ideologies.

Staving off sudden disruption is about becoming less insular and more open. Disruption comes from the periphery and can be invisible at the center of systems. At the center, information that is received is likely to be relayed via multiple handoffs, filtered, and distorted like in the old game of telephone. Getting out, seeing things first-hand, talking to people is key to getting ground truth. With this, our world widens and we will become fuller beings.  (I’ll write about this in a business context in a future post.)

As we journey to new spaces, we become acquainted with what once was alien. Jim Morrison of The Doors sang: people are strange when you are a stranger. When we befriend the unknown, the unknown morphs into a more familiar face. And in the grander scheme of things, embracing the unknown is about encountering our own selves — our assumptions, fears, and patterns. Joseph Campbell, who wrote about these transformations as the hero’s journey, indicates that this is a perennial and continual human journey that we are all called to make. He wrote:

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

Here, the true heroic path is not ignoring change or forcing our existing preferences on the world but exploring ways that both change us and the world for the better. As Campbell offered, the goal is to be in and with the world… in more harmonious wholeness. In this way, the risk of disruption is diminished as we reach out and dance with the elephant. 

Across the Divide — Bridging Belief and Belonging The Best of Enemies [DVD] : Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell,  Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, Nick Searcy, Bruce McGill, Robin  Bissell, Danny Strong, Fred Bernstein, Matt Berenson, Robin Bissell,

I watched a film named The Best of Enemies. It is based on a true story about a Black organizer facing off against a Klan leader over school integration in Durham, NC back in the 1970s. The film revolves around a mediation process that is to end in a vote to integrate the schools or not. The default stance of a few representatives who will cast a vote is not in doubt but there are a few swing votes each side aims to influence. The stakes are high for the Black community. The White school is well resourced. The Black school is not.

Ibram X Kendi points out that at the heart of racism are systemic inequalities. When these systems are changed, the fight to preserve them usually evaporates. Few people in Durham, NC today would try to challenge the integration of schools. What’s behind the fight is fear and bias. But how do we shift this?

The Best of Enemies film is instructive in how this shift can happen. The Klan leader is devoted to the racist fraternity because it provides him with a sense of belonging and a sense of superiority. The debates on inclusion only harden his stance and his allies on the Klan play to intimidate the White swing voters. Yet the battle is won on another front (spoiler alert). The Klansman himself flips sides. He’s won over by an act of kindness by the Black organizer on behalf of his son who has Downs Syndrome and is at a facility that the father can barely afford. It is a source of deep helplessness and pain. The unexpected kindness from “the enemy” cracks his hard but brittle shell of separateness and superiority. 

In the book Humankind that I am reading, the author points out that empathy cuts both ways. It can bond us to our tribes and harden us against the other. Cracking this wall of who belongs in our kin group is the challenge. 

In the film, a White business owner who is a designated voter refuses to be intimidated by the Klan or be pressured to vote against integration. His stance is rooted in a relationship he has with a Black colleague who he fought alongside in the war. Discriminating against people who put their lives on the line for him was unconscionable.  

I spent my early years at a boarding school that had kids from different ethnic groups across India — religion, caste, and linguistic identities. We became close friends and are still closely connected some 40 years later, though we are scattered across multiple countries. Furthermore, many of my classmates married outside their identity groups, which is rather unusual in India. This exposure to difference helped us claim a larger identity for ourselves. 

So, if we want to defeat systemic racism, we need to indeed change systemic policies but the way we can best do this is to create friendships that pave the way to change. What divides us is not perhaps belief as much as belonging.