The Princess Bride just starts to get interesting with the kidnapping of Buttercup and the following pursuit. The Man-in-Black chases after the kidnappers, overcoming all obstacles to track Buttercup down. “There is no misunderstanding,” Vizzini says to the Man-in-Black once he defeats both the lithe swordsman Inigo Montoya and the mighty giant Fezzik, “You are trying to kidnap what I’ve rightfully stolen.” The Man-in-Black, unable to convince Vizzini to make a deal with him, proposes a battle of wits. He puts the lethal poison Iocane powder in one of the two chalices of wine, saying “Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right and who is dead.”
Right or dead. Rather harsh options. When forced to a decision between two such dire choices, we get terribly nervous. The prospect of our choice leaves us vulnerable and exposed. We are trapped, and have to choose one or the other. But how can we choose between such options? One choice is good and will lead to happiness, but the other, death. In the face of such a stark dichotomy, we are forced to recognize some objective truth that is separate from us, beyond us, and affecting us profoundly. There is nothing we can do about it. That’s the trouble with objective truth: it is not subject to our decisions. We cannot fully control it, and things we cannot control scare us.
How much nicer would it be if we could say that there are all different sorts of reality, that each of our perceptions is the foundation of our own worlds. If only we could create a world for ourselves in our own image and be rid of the difficulty of objective truth requiring a response from us.
How deep this desire runs in our individualistic culture! This imagined existence in which I can build a world for myself based on my own perception is even enshrined in common law. In the infamous court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
We certainly act like this at times. Back when I was working at an amusement park, we learned that “perception is reality.” The idea, I think, was to help us recognize that people judge the world and act on their judgments based on their experiences, regardless of the truth of the matter. From my own experience with guests at the park, I can assert that this is certainly true.
And yet, while reality may lead to perceptions true or false, my perceptions do not cause my reality.
The world with all its challenges and frustrations exists outside of our own understanding. If I think that I can create a world for myself in my own image, according to my own desires, that I am never right nor wrong but only doing what feels right to me, I will be terribly disappointed. To be happy, my concept of existence must bow to the truth of reality.
As uncomfortable as it is to face the stark truth of the existing world and respond, perhaps it is good that I cannot shape a world for myself. I do not always know what I want, and recognizing that this world exists despite myself is quite liberating. Seeing myself as only part of a greater whole gives me a sense of true meaning, that there is something real for me to work on and some existing good to strive for. The existence of a common world is the only way of connecting with others. The simple existence of other persons and realities moves me beyond the insular self and the vague “do whatever you want as long as it makes you happy.” It presents me with a thousand questions and delights. I cannot make happiness for myself, so how do I find happiness?
Because we realize that each of us is in via and not capable of manufacturing our desired happiness, we are forced to seek Happiness in some primal truth about our existence. And that Truth which we struggle to understand is ultimately a person, in fact the Three Persons in one God.
Since this reality is our only fulfillment, we need to engage the harsh truth of reality if only to find that happiness which we seek. When running towards that perfect sunset, there is no room for shades of grey. With perfect happiness on the line, why settle for “that’s nice if it makes you happy”? There can only be right or wrong, light or darkness, truth or death.
So in the end, both the Man-in-Black and Vizzini cannot have their own right opinions of reality. One is right, and one is dead.
Image: Viktor Vasnetsov, The Knight at the Crossroads (public domain).