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Four-Leaf Clovers and Mass Delusion
Contemplations on Dystopia
When I was a kid, I used to search for four-leaf clovers.
Always fruitlessly. I knew that they existed—though I had only personally seen one or two in real life, found by others and carefully preserved. I was also conversant in the superstition of my culture, so I knew that to find a four-leaf clover meant great luck, which, in my mind, produced the logical conclusion that one had to be lucky to find them.
I never found them, so I was not lucky. I was not lucky, so I never found them.
Later on, at about the age of 19, I was speaking to a new acquaintance at the park when she said, “Oh look! A four-leaf clover!” and knelt down to pluck it. I was amazed. How had she done that? And she wasn’t even looking for it. She explained to me that she used to be unable to find four-leaf clovers no matter how long and hard she looked, until her boyfriend explained to her that they actually aren’t all that rare, and you can find them without even looking for them—if you just allow yourself to see them. Her boyfriend had a rather large collection of four-leaf clovers, so she couldn’t deny the evidence. After that, she, too, started to see them everywhere, finding (in her job as a landscaper) multiple four-leaf clovers each week during the spring and summer.
I went away from that conversation with a new view of clover-finding. My previous belief was shattered—I could no longer rationalize it, even though it wasn’t something I’d ever even thought I was rationalizing. Somewhere inside me there must have been this belief and the unconscious rationalization of it, or else I would have been finding four-leaf clovers everywhere, without even trying, just like my new friend and her boyfriend.
One day shortly thereafter, I was just walking through a parking lot, and as I passed by a patch of grass and clover, a distinct shape popped out at me—an aberration in the pattern of the clover patch. I had found my first four-leaf clover.
Since then, I’ve found four-leaf clovers aplenty. I usually pick them and preserve them. I have a great many books, and pressed between the pages of these books are four-leaf clovers, folded up into wax paper. I joke with my family that when I die and they give away or sell all of my books, they’re going to make a lot of people feel very lucky.
There is an almost universal belief among humans—at least in the context of my own culture—that four-leaf clovers are extremely rare and difficult to find. This is mass delusion. It is a small, fairly inconsequential example of the phenomenon, almost silly, and it doesn’t cause any obvious harm to anyone, but undeniably, as I proved to myself, it is mass delusion.
Who knows if the association of four-leaf clovers with luck and good fortune is due to this mass delusion, or if it is the other way around, and the delusion of their rarity follows from their association with luck? For most people, we also believe, are not lucky, and we often feel ourselves to be unlucky.
I, myself, still do not feel lucky. The slight shift in perception that allowed me to find four-leaf clovers only proved to me that they weren’t rare. It didn’t prove to me that my unluckiness did not exist. And maybe that is also a delusion that needs addressing.
The thing about mass delusion is that it is both real and unreal—both truth and untruth—at the same time.
While the belief itself may be completely untethered from reality, it is self-reinforcing, causing real effects in the world. Each individual’s unconscious participation in it makes it more real, and the more people who see the truth beneath the delusion, the weaker the delusion’s real effects may be. If most people accepted that four-leaf clovers were plentiful and not difficult to find, then the occasional person who still believed that they were rare would not alter the common knowledge that they weren’t, even though that person might not be able to find them himself. We can all think of examples from history or current events in which the unthinking belief in some state or condition of life has made it so, and perhaps we can even think of examples where the opposite occurred: enough people realized the error and then it was no longer so.
Dystopia, I am coming to realize, may be just such a delusion. Dystopia exists, so we are not free and happy. We are not free and happy, so dystopia exists.
Looking at this objectively, should we deny that dystopia exists? No, dystopia does exist, just like the rarity of four-leaf clovers, as both a belief and as a common experience of reality. It would be ridiculous to claim that all people find four-leaf clovers with ease, and it is ridiculous to claim that people do not actually experience dystopia. But how much of that real experience is predicated upon delusion?
Dystopia is simply mass-disharmony growing from the sick soil of mass-delusion.
We recognize this as the utter and undeniable state of things when we see dystopia in the fictive world. In 1984, Winston Smith begins to see a glimmer of the truth beyond the delusion—that the world is not good, that people are not truly happy or secure (neither Party members or proles), that the power structure is neither honest nor righteous, that Big Brother himself may be the biggest delusion of all. The more he pursues this glimmer of truth the brighter it shines. And yet, by the end, he gives in to delusion because it is ultimately easier than living—and perhaps dying—in truth when everyone and everything around him is slave to the delusion.
The truth and the untruth are so clearly dependent upon each other in this story. We know, upon reading the final words of the novel, that this whole society is steeped so deeply in untruth that no one, not even our hero, can escape the painful truth their self-deception has wrought. The best they can do is to ignore it, like the proles, distracting themselves to oblivion. Or they can immerse themselves in it, like the Party members, training themselves to silence all objections, to contort all naked observations into knots of Newspeak, until all they feel at the conscious level is that they truly do love Big Brother.
In Brave New World, Bernard Marx also sees a glimmer of truth. It is discomforting, though, and ugly, because he has lived his entire life in a world of superficial contentment. John the Savage sees clearly the rot at the bottom of Bernard’s perfect society, but is powerless to contend with the delusion because he is just one man—a savage man, at that—in a giant orgy-porgy of soma-addled alphas and betas. And perhaps also because his own worldview is built on a delusion of an entirely different sort.
Brave New World is a utopia wrapped around a dystopia. Again, truth and untruth interplay seamlessly here. Most of the people in this society believe themselves to be happy, though they have to pop a pill every couple hours to maintain this happiness. Their happiness manifests so intensely, as ecstasy and bliss, that they never have time or energy to feel anything else. What’s more, their breeding and conditioning has been made so streamlined, their capacity for independent thought so crippled, that few ever chance to see what they have lost, the gaping vacuum inside that keeps them popping pills and skipping along to the next orgy. What they have lost is the essential human desire to strive. Without it, they can never find true meaning, experience true connection, or feel true fulfillment.
What if dystopia comes about as the result of a mass belief that freedom and happiness are unobtainable? By changing your belief, you wouldn’t magically be stepping into a world where dystopia did not exist, just like my clover-related belief adjustment didn’t magically deposit me into a world where everyone was swimming in four-leaf clovers. But perhaps your personal experience would be altered, if only by a small degree. Perhaps you would find that freedom and happiness are not so rare and difficult to procure as you previously thought.
Now we are in the realm of utopia—an impossible proposition, right? Well, it’s often been said that utopia is impossible because one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia. And that is true. But maybe we need to redefine utopia a bit.
If utopia is simply a state of society in which every individual has the requisite freedom to strive, then utopia is achievable, without the pounding of square pegs into round holes, without the enforced conformity of thought in 1984 or the superficial, drug-induced bliss of Brave New World.
To find four-leaf clovers, you have to soften your gaze.
They are all over the place, but you only see them in quiet awareness, not in desperate searching from behind rigid beliefs. To prove it, I just now went outside my house and stood in a clover patch for five minutes, and came back with this:
I think I may have tapped into something here—a universal something that only looks like magic until it enters the realm of the possible, through repeated instances of individuals breaking with delusion and the superstitions of culture, and seeing that the changes that take place as a result are changes in perception only—that this was always the way it was, if only we could soften our gaze and allow ourselves to see it.
Thank you for reading!
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