The most common way to enjoy a movie is to play along that what you’re watching is real. If you would not – if you'd continuously remind yourself that you’re watching actors in a studio or film set with fake blood and endless retakes of scenes and with lunches in between – it would certainly affect the experience. And the point of watching a movie usually is the experience of emotions, so you set your mind to believing your eyes and ears. More precisely: you suspend your disbelief.
While the benefit of such suspension of disbelief is clear, the potential risk might not be. It’s simply though: the risk is that you might forget it’s not real. You can switch off a movie, but you still might feel a fear of some kind because of what you just watched. It might even be traumatizing or stimulate an old trauma.
But this post isn’t about movies. It’s about suspension of disbelief in real life. Here’s an excerpt about it from the book Dreamstate by Jed McKenna:
"Somewhere inside you know that your fast food lunch is more noxious than nutritious. You might as well spread lard on a pack of cigarettes and eat that, but you eat it anyway because, seriously, it's not just lunch that's so damn crazy, it's everything. Where do you draw the line? You would never be able to eat in a restaurant or from a grocery store if you couldn't bullshit yourself about the quality, safety and sourcing of the food. My doctor cares about my health, my priest cares about my soul, my bank cares about my financial well-being, this restaurant isn't cutting corners, my friends and family don't talk about me the way I talk about them, politicians work for the people, religions care about truth, the justice system cares about justice, the healthcare system cares about health, reporters are fair and balanced, this adult can be trusted with my kids, that cop wakes up every morning and performs a rigorous moral inventory, infatuation is love, organic produce is safe, these pills will make me better, I am not a number, my life has meaning, my opinion matters, my vote counts, I will live on through my children, I will be remembered, I am special, I am real, I matter… and on and on and on. You have to bullshit yourself about everything just to get through the day. It's the spoonful of sugar that helps the reality go down.”
Yes, it is a bit dark perhaps, but the point he makes in the book, is not that we should stop enjoying life by suspending our disbelief, but that we should develop a bi-focal view. With a little practice, you can look through a glass door while looking at the reflection in the glass at the same time. Similarly, he argues, you can learn to enjoy the experience of life combined with a deep knowing that it’s not entirely real.
What this requires, is an honest look at the realness of what each of us considers ‘me’. Even if we apply standards of science, the evidence uncomfortably often points in the direction that this sensation of selfness is merely an illusion. Moreover, an illusion with a bias to taking itself to be real – a blind spot.
To many people, there seems to be no apparent value in looking into such a philosophical question. But if the movie is upsetting you, it could be helpful if the frame zooms out to a perspective where you can see the stage lights, the blue screen and the teleprompter. Until you feel like zooming in again.