Sacred Stories of the Ordinary

Suppose that a proof for God came in the mail. What would it look like?
It would be a book containing all the stories of your life.

Virtual Reality

By Lawrence Kushner

One of my sons brought home a new computer game. This was not one of those video arcade contraptions with primitive little animated characters chasing one another around the screen or space ships shooting at alien invaders. It didn't even require split-second visual reflexes. "It is a new breed," he told me, "called virtual reality." You play it by "entering" it. Your only chance at winning is by imagining that you are actually inside it. Instead of asking, "How do I win this game?" you ask, "What would I do if I really lived in this world?"

At the beginning of this game (called "MYST"), you look at the screen and find yourself on an island. There's a dock, a forest, buildings, stairways. The graphics and sound effects are impressive and convincing. There are no instructions, no rules. You "go" places by aiming a little pointing finger and clicking. You can look up and down, turn around, climb stairs, wander all around the place. Everywhere your curiosity leads you, there are things to discover, learn and remember. There are machines you can operate, a library full of books you can open and read. After a while, the dedicated player will discover how to leave the island and go to other mysterious places. Devotees say the game is properly played over weeks and even months.

And the purpose of it all? Why, of course: To figure out what you're doing there. But to do that, you must first figure out how the place works.

What fascinates me here is not yet another sophisticated and clever way to waste time in front of the computer screen. (I can do that with File Manager.) It is the concept of a game whose purpose is for the player to discover the purpose. Virtual reality, schmirtual reality, this is no game. What's going on here? Why am I here? Are there any rules? What are they? How does my behavior affect what is going on?

Upon hearing about all this, Alan Feldman, a friend who is a professor of English, suggested that it seemed a lot like childhood. I'd go farther. It may be a lot like adulthood, too. We all find ourselves in "this world" and the "object" seems to be to figure out what we're doing here. Unfortunately, most of the ways one thing is connected to or dependent upon another thing are not immediately apparent. If we live long enough, take careful notes and listen to those who have gone before us, we stand a chance.

After all, meaning is primarily a matter of relationship. If something is connected to absolutely nothing - symbolically, linguistically, physically, psychologically - it is literally meaningless. And in the same way, if something is connected to everyone and everything, it would be supremely meaning-full. I suppose it would be God - the "One" through whom everything is connected to everything else, the Source of all meaning. Religious traditions are the collected "rules of the game." They tell us how the world works. And if you "play by them," you are rewarded (let us hope, before it is time to leave) with an understanding of why you are here; with what is otherwise known as the meaning of life.

While my new virtual reality computer game may be infuriatingly intricate and frustrating, at least I have the comfort of knowing that it was designed by someone. I may not be clever enough to figure out its purpose, but it does have one. Its rules can be learned; it can be completed; it has an end. Life, on the other hand, comes with no such implicit guarantee, and its time frame and playing field are literally beyond our comprehension.

What if there were a virtual reality computer game that was programmed to approximate real life? If you could design such a program, what would be "the object?" The way I see it there are only a few rules.

The first rule of the game of life is that you cannot decide when to begin playing. One day, out of the blue, you realize that you're playing. Someone or something else determined when the game would begin. And it wasn't your parents. They may have known about the birds and the bees and even set out to conceive a child, but they didn't have a clue it was going to be you. And now that they've had a chance to meet you, while they most likely love you, they'd probably have picked someone else. In religious language, this means that you are a creature. Someone else made you. And you are neither its partner nor its puppet: You are its manifestation, its agent, its child.

The second rule is that you cannot decide when to stop playing the game, either. One day, out of the blue, you're dead. For a slogan on the box of the game of "Life," we could use something I saw on a T-shirt: "Life: You're not going to make it out alive!" That means there's no way you can win the game by staying in it forever. No matter how many points, toys, honors, conquests, dollars you accumulate, sooner than anyone expects or wants, the game is abruptly over. You hear a little chime, maybe a buzzer, the keyboard freezes, the screen goes blank. The game ends without warning. Nothing you acquire, accomplish, or believe will have any effect whatsoever on when the game ends. But there's good news: Dying does not mean you lose. It's what you do before you die that determines whether or not you win when you die.

The third rule - just to keep you on your toes - is that each player is issued apparently random, undeserved gifts and handicaps throughout the progress of the game. Figuring out why you got the combination package you did transforms all disabilities into gifts, just as refusing to figure out why you were issued what you received transforms all gifts into disabilities. My father used to say that all men are not created equal. Some get dealt a full house; others, a pair of twos. The question therefore is not whether you deserve the hand you were dealt, but how you choose to play it.

The fourth rule is that points are awarded whenever you can discern the presence, or the signature, of the Creator, and then act so as to help others see it too. The signature is not just in objects, but in actions and thoughts and feelings; not just in sunshine and happiness, but in agony, struggle and death. Remember: Finding the signature and then acting in such a way as to help others find it, too, is the only way to accumulate game points.

And the last rule is that everything is connected to everything else. Therefore, life is supercharged, permeated and over-brimming with purpose and meaning. Most of the time we are oblivious to it. We go about our lives as if every event were an accident. And then something happens and we see the connection. For a just moment it is unmistakable. We are astonished that we couldn't see it until now. All creation is one great unity. There are no coincidences.

Throughout all creation, just beneath the surface, joining each person to every other person and to every other thing in a numinous organism of sacred responsibility, we discover invisible lines of connection.

Now that's my idea of a game.

Lawrence Kushner, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El, Sudbury, Mass., is a creative theologian with a broad interreligious audience and the author of Honey from the Rock: An Easy Introduction to Jewish Mysticism and God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know (Jewish Lights Publishing). The story excerpted here is taken from Invisible Lines of Connection: Sacred Stories of the Ordinary (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1996. \$21.95 + \$3.50 s/h. P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091). Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 1996, Vol. 46 Issue 2.