"Wake up, Henry, you've done it!" The overhead light pressing my eyes to stay shut were overcome by this guy's shout as I was just gaining consciousness.
"Congratulations, Henry," another calmed voice added. I arched my head up to get a glimpse of these two blobs at each end of my hospital bed.
With my memories rolling back into place, I asked, "What have I done that's applause worthy?"
"You've achieved a definitive moral crisis!"
"Only a small percentage of a percentage of the population ever reach this point and we are happy to welcome you to the team."
"Sorry, what? What is this?"
The more excited man walked up closer and pointed at my heart with his finger. "That feeling you have there. The ticking clock that just keeps getting louder and louder–"
"Anyone can become anxious, that's a part of life. No, what matters is what exactly you're anxious about."
"Can you tell us why you were anxious? Before you ended up in this hospital bed talking to us that is."
"Well, any time I go outside and see other people–the homeless people, the poor people going about their lives, living in terrible conditions, with injuries and ailments, and no one acknowledging their existence and yet feeling their presence–I just become incredibly stressed."
"And this isn't the first time you've been admitted for panic attacks caused by this, yeah?"
"This is my third time. I just don't know how to cope with my blatant hypocrisy. I'm not rich by any means, but relatively I am well off and I lapse into depression thinking about how terrible this world is that we leave so many people behind to live these awful lives unnecessarily."
"Unnecessarily you say?"
"Yeah, it's quite obvious to me that we have had for many decades plenty of resources to meet everyone's basic necessities. Only through corruption, power imbalances, greed, and our humanity have we failed to help each other."
"Yes, you have a point there."
"But to what end is anyone served by these problems?"
"Look guys, I'm in a hospital recuperating here. You wake me up to congratulate me on having a moral crisis and then hit me with all these questions. Are you messing with me?"
"Fair enough, allow me to continue this dialogue as you would if you had the muster to hold a conversation. Please feel free to correct me if I'm misrepresenting you."
"By the way, you may call me Dave," the excitable one explained. And your stand-in there is Mel."
"Alright, ask me the question again," Mel continued.
"But to what end is anyone served by these problems?"
"The poor and poverty classes of society serve to scare the middle class into working for the upper class lest they be stripped of their 'rights' and live as they know them. It is the present belief in the upper class that humanity cannot survive or be motivated to make forward progress in a civilization where basic needs are guaranteed."
Dave looked over to me, "Does this articulate your beliefs?"
I quickly nodded. This captured my feeling better than I could.
"Excellent, next question then. Is the upper class correct to assume humanity needs to be motivated through fear to continue forward?"
"It is disgusting that they can even pose that claim while they themselves are born into generational wealth and circumstance that came without merit. And those who did enter the elite by their own effect have vested interest in preserving the system once they are in it. For anyone to try to control through fear because it suits their interests, of course they would insist it is the most optimal."
I leaned in. I would have gone a bit further.
"Answer the question I asked, Mel. Is it correct?"
"Frankly I don't know. This system has existed for thousands of years and we have come this far. What has changed is technology and automation. We have a lot of hard questions to ask ourselves, even of the merit of motivation itself, in a world where now we have enough people doing work that we don't need everyone participating in the workforce.
We're grinding ourselves to the bone as if we are the automation because we're too afraid of utopia. But I think it is time we take a chance and reinvent ourselves, prioritizing people over property, maximizing human rights consistently, and seeing what comes of it. If we don't try, we can be needlessly wasting the potential of generation after generation solving things that don't matter poorly."
"If you were given proof that the current system is optimal?"
"I'd push harder and harder for that not to be the case. It can't be. We need something greater, we need to break this vicious cycle and advance humanity to the next stage."
Dave and Mel were playing out my internal struggles right before my eyes. I was hooked.
They looked back to me, "Even if your eyes weren't giving it away, we know we've got your number."
"Each of us had this internal monologue and had found ourselves in the exact place you are right now because of it."
"Henry, we're so happy to let you know that we and now also you are the worst harmed by modern society."
I was so confused.
Mel rephrased, "Those of us so overcome with guilt about the state of modern society are the worst off in society."
I still didn't get it. I was visually puzzled.
"Okay, so let me drop the bombshell. All the homeless people, all those people you've seen living in abject poverty: they are fabricated. Robots, animatronics, actors, special effects, and propaganda are the lower class." Dave said this with a straight face.
"What are you saying?" I had snapped out of having any respect for these guys.
"I know this is incredibly hard to accept given our intense anxieties, but it is the truth. Regardless of whether the upper class is right or wrong about what is necessary to motivate humanity to progress, we have systematically eliminated the poverty class."
"It is a tightly kept secret but it is exactly as you presume. We do have more than enough resources for everyone and automation and technology have revolutionized the world."
"What you hadn't reasoned through yet was that through that same automation there was a path forward to improve humanity while also keeping vested interests happy. Everyone gets to be at least middle class, because they don't know that as the 'middle class' they are the true bottom of humanity. Below them is simply a facade serving the purpose of motivating them to work."
"Get out of here! This is the most insensitive idea you could possibly try to feed me," I said in anger.
"Henry, have you talked to people in poverty? Have you really taken a direct look at those people sleeping on the sides of the road? Have you watched them for multiple days at a time?"
"Yes! Well not full days but I've interacted with the homeless. They are real people suffering out there."
"Are you sur–"
"Yes dammit I am sure."
"Well, humor us then since you are so confident.
You probably have learned a lot about homelessness from your own personal experiences, but how much of the big picture have you learned yourself? Your perceptions are driven by what is shown to you through the media more than you know. The worst of poverty you have never bore yourself and have you ever seen any of your friends fall victim to it?"
"My friends and family are doing alright for themselves."
"Correct! Not just them but everyone is!"
"Without the world even knowing it, we've been able to meet everyone's needs and keep people motivated to work at the same time. That homelessness that has given you gut-wrenching anxiety, like so many other things tricking the populace into thinking there are poor people, is a manufactured illusion."
Mel leaned in, "It's probably not true, right? But if it wer–"
"It's not." I interjected.
"But if it were, how awesome would that be?"
"Please. Just get out of here and leave me alone."
"Alright Henry, we've talked your ear off long enough. Get some rest."
The two walked out of the room into the hallway, but Dave came back quickly, poked his head in, and repeated, "Congratulations, Henry! We'll see you soon." They walked off and I closed my eyes again and drifted off.
The absolute nerve of those two.
In the weeks after my hospital visit, I found my disgust for myself but also the institutions that created all these problems were replaced by an inward hatred of myself alone. While the conversation was brief, I couldn't help but feel uplifted by the conspiracy Mel and Dave presented to me.
My anxiety about the world around me was cured, or perhaps dulled, by the more immediate fact that I was suffering as a human being and floundering against my own limitations. The external pressures I felt so strongly because I believed I lacked the agency to address them. I enjoyed being caught up in this fantasy where I could pretend everything was okay, and in knowing that fantasy was a lie, I only had to hate myself and aspire to change myself which was relatively easy.
This was a very cult-like phenomena to me: to be relieved and have my suffering lessen by bullshit that I knew was bullshit. This was very much a "the lies we tell ourselves" moment, a means of escaping reality by envisioning an alternate reality. Why was I drawing so much comfort from this idea?
It made some sense by its merits. I'd had believed that where we began to degrade as a people was the point where we realized that controlling the populace was easier done by the threat of a regression of rights or security rather than to manage an ongoing dialogue to advance and extend the rights of individuals such that more and more people could achieve self-actualization, or achieve their potential.
A controlled populace but where the rights and securities of everyone were being elevated would be an interesting compromise of sorts. Not ideal as the very underpinnings of human motivation would be predicated on a flimsy lie, nor pleasant for anyone like myself wallowing in anguish about a problem that didn't really exist.
However, an expansion of rights and addressing of human needs, continuing raising the bar, I could hope would eventually lead to a civilization where we might escape the need for a rat race, reject that foundational lie, and move forward. A short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain for humanity would be dramatically more tolerable than the current reality where there is no gain in our sacrifice.
Alas, the idea is too fantastical to be true. I don't believe such a secret could be kept from the population. The poor are just too complex to fake. Social services, charities, shelters, government programs, corporations, and volunteers themselves would either need to be in the loop or fooled by others. Though not effective, there are too many institutions working on these problems. How could one even measure that the system is working, have the illusion of unemployment rate and the real unemployment rate? Who would oversee such a system?
What made this idea so alluring at the end of the day I feel is that it served as a distraction from my anxiety. Being in such a dark and ineffective place for so long, I was presented with a simple solution with half-decent framing, especially as a conspiracy where it couldn't be refuted if only you wanted to accept the premise as true. I wanted to play with it.
I could interpret this as a moral failing on my part. Ashamed to be so easily led astray from experiencing my cycle of nosedives into despair. Yes, I was distracted but I was taken off of a self-destructive path. It took awhile to figure it out, but I am grateful for the idea Mel and Dave shared. It's wrong, and if they believe it they are crazy, but it has gotten me out of this hole.
I don't quite know why but I am now optimistic. There's something about experiencing your fallibility, your susceptibility to ideas, your desire for simple answers, and working through it to reject those ideas that give false hope through deceit. Overcoming the lure of that gives me hope that we all can change things more broadly.
What stands in our way is bad ideas and we only need to change our minds and work to solve them. Who knows what can turn things around?