The Real Reality Principle

Our actions, or inactions, have consequences that we can never truly know

Matthew Perkins (Flickr/mattyp)
Matthew Perkins (Flickr/mattyp)

It started with a flood. In early December, my wife and I were awakened in the middle of the night by the faint sound of clacking on our window. We got out of bed to investigate and found ourselves in three inches of water—at which point I opened the window and saw my downstairs neighbor outside. “Our apartment is drenched!” she yelled, and I yelled back, “Ours too!” I knew what had happened. Two months earlier, we’d bought a new washing machine, and while installing it, I’d discovered an unused pipe in the wall. I’d told myself that I should plug it up—I even bought a plug at the hardware shop—but I never made the time. Now we were up in the middle of the night mopping up our room. A week later, when mold appeared on our neighbor’s ceiling, I spent an afternoon killing off the spores with bleach and hours on the phone with the insurance company. All this, I told myself, because I hadn’t taken a few minutes to plug up a pipe I knew needed to be plugged up. And this, I kept telling myself, was the work of the real reality principle.

The “reality principle,” first put forward by Freud, is a fundamental mechanism of the psyche that works against—and also alongside—the pleasure principle. Freud held that, to achieve genuine pleasure, we have to take the external world into account, postponing or diminishing our gratification to ensure its fulfillment. But thinkers who came after Freud developed the idea in their own ways. Jacques Lacan, for example, contended that the reality principle did more than simply correct the path of our pleasure-seeking. “In truth,” he said, “we make reality out of pleasure”—flipping our understanding of reality on its head. Lacan’s idea is attractive, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that our pleasure-seeking governs our external reality. Harold Bloom, for his part, called the reality principle “a taking into account of all the conditions imposed upon us by nature, which means coming to terms with the necessity of dying.” This expands the notion of reality to all influences on our lives beyond our control, especially death. But this statement emphasizes death over another aspect of reality: life. Because, in reality, life and death are inseparable, and both beyond our control. Coming to terms with having to die is no less part of the reality principle than coming to terms with the necessity of living. Because living, in the fullest sense of the world, can sometimes be hard too.

None of this I ever found particularly mind-blowing until I thought about what would have happened had I simply plugged up the pipe before the flood. The answer, of course, is that nothing would have happened. I would have spent half an hour taking care of a chore that I didn’t particularly care to deal with and then gone on with the rest of my life. I never would have known what trouble I was saving because it would have never taken place. And the possibility of not knowing the implications of a simple action made me think about all of the seemingly insignificant things we do, the consequences of which we will never know. And this real reality principle—accepting displeasures we’d rather avoid rather than seeking pleasures we want to enjoy—helped guide my behavior just a few weeks later.

At the end of that same December, my youngest sister traveled with her boyfriend from Portland to Los Angeles to visit my parents for Christmas, driving down the coast to avoid getting Covid on a plane and infecting anyone at home. She got tested before she left and had worn a mask indoors until she and her boyfriend got their second test results upon arrival. But my dad didn’t wear a mask because he was in his own house. And though one might expect me to report that, despite her precautions, my sister nevertheless infected my dad, that’s not the case. In the end, he infected her and her boyfriend.

My sister and her boyfriend were fine. So was my stepmom, who was also infected. But my dad was not. Less than two weeks later, he had to be taken to the emergency room, where he was prescribed steroids and told to go home. I was halfway across the world in Jerusalem, but having learned the lesson of the flood, I didn’t wait for things to develop. I began looking for answers to the many questions left open after his initial visit to the hospital. I learned that Los Angeles had become one of the world’s leading Covid hot spots, so I asked my wife to call an old friend, an ER doctor in New York who had been treating Covid cases for nearly a year, to understand what might happen next. We spoke for 30 minutes. He explained the symptoms that, if they occurred, would mean that my dad needed to go back to the hospital. A few days later, when those symptoms appeared—including a downward trend in oxygen saturation—we told my stepmom that she had to take him in immediately. My dad didn’t look or sound terrible when I video chatted with him. He said he wanted to stay home another day. But I knew that the flood could come at any moment, and that reality didn’t wait for anyone to plug up a pipe. We urged them to go—and they did.

It happened to be New Year’s Day, and perhaps for that reason, he was able to get a hospital bed more or less on arrival. He was released 30 days later. Sometime in the middle of that period, when they had him on high-flow oxygen in a room next to the ICU, he called me in the middle of the night to tell me he didn’t think he was going to make it out. I told him he needed to fight, and when the phone call ended, I cried. I didn’t know whether he’d survive. I learned the real meaning of taking things day by day—and as we connected each morning and evening by video call, I often saw that he had little energy to do much more than operate the phone. We didn’t say anything. I just pointed the camera at our daughter, his granddaughter, telling him that he needed to pull through because she was waiting to hang out with him.

It was a long month. In the news, Los Angeles doctors were quoted as saying that part of what was so difficult about treating Covid patients was that people were waiting too long before coming to the hospital. When my dad left home, he could still breathe, and was still working at his desk, meaning that he sought treatment soon enough for medical intervention to save his life. Even so, there were several close calls along the way as his condition worsened. As much as we thought we’d been vigilant, we worried that we also had waited too long before insisting that he go to the hospital. Perhaps we had—and so, when the flood came, it was too late to stop it completely. But we had at least acted in time to clean up the mess and get my dad back on his feet.

And this, again, reconfirmed the real reality principle: the idea that our minutest decisions have consequences far beyond those we can know. In a reality as complex as the one in which we live today, the relationship between what we can do and what we do do always remains unknown. But the action, the doing, remains in our power. As a good friend once put it, there’s no control group for reality. We either do something or we don’t, and either way, the eventualities that emerge can surprise us. Sometimes they are happy surprises, and sometimes they are not. And all we’re really left with, in the end, are the choices we made.

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David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar whose recent work has appeared in Speculative Nonfiction, EastWest Literary Forum, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. His latest book is A Short Inquiry into the End of the World, and his edited collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer's essays will be published in May. He was born in Israel, grew up in Los Angeles, and lives in Jerusalem.


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