Escaping reality? Why we crave a different life

January 10, 2018

In her article titled, “Pioneers of a Forgotten Future,” in the December 2017 edition of The Atlantic, Leslie Jamison describes a woman named Bridgette—a hard-working mother of four children, including two severely autistic twins—who wakes up at 5:30 a.m. so she can spend an hour and a half on an online platform called Second Life. There, she creates and then explores an alternate reality, reminiscent of the movie Inception, where she can be and do whatever she wishes, alongside other users who together create a shared virtual world.

On the particular day Jamison describes, Bridgette wakes up early in real life so that she can log on to Second Life where she blogs about the fact that she is going to sleep late and spend the day at the pool—all in her virtual world. The irony of a busy mom who wakes up early so she can fantasize about sleeping in late in her virtual reality is unreal, so to speak. Jamison notes the appeal of Second Life: it allows people to have “total immersion in another world,” a world that seems, at least while you’re in it, far from the actual world we inhabit, a world marred and broken by sin.

Second Life was supposed to be the “next big thing” on the internet back in 2003 when Philip Rosedale invented the platform. Linden Lab, the company that created Second Life, has seen surprising success, even though it was surpassed quickly in notoriety by Facebook. Over 36 million users have spent over 217,000 collective years using the program and have spent $3.2 billion in real dollars to purchase various program upgrades—ranging from virtual yachts to body modifications. Second Life is designed so that “anyone can be anything,” according to one user. This virtual utopia, as Jamison documents, allows women who in real life are infertile to create a virtual family with children. People who are physically handicapped can create “avatars” that are physically capable. One such woman, as described in Jamison’s article, suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. But in Second Life, she spends her time exploring various waterslides that other users have created.

What is behind the desire of so many people to create and then inhabit an alternate reality? And what are the dangers of being swept up into a virtual world?

Avoiding brokenness, missing beauty

One of the more alarming aspects of Second Life is its inherent escapism. Bridgette turns to Second Life to get some relief from (and perhaps momentarily forget?) her very difficult life. Of course, escaping into a virtual world is only one of a variety of ways that people try to escape the difficulties of life. Whether it is watching hours of television, drinking until all feeling is lost, or experiencing “your best fake life now” on a computer game, these are all means of numbing ourselves to the very real pain and brokenness of the real world.

But of course, if we are numb to the world’s brokenness, we are also numb to its beauty. By escaping for a few hours into an alternate reality, you may momentarily miss some of the hardships of life, but you also will miss its joys. In trying to escape the hardships of parenting—listening to crying children or changing dirty diapers—how many of your children’s hugs will you also miss? In Second Life, you may love the artificial water slide, but the water slide won’t love you back.

The gospel tells us what to do with our brokenness, and why we experience it in the first place.

The gospel tells us what to do with our brokenness, and why we experience it in the first place. The gospel narrative—creation, rebellion, redemption, new creation—gives us a framework for understanding that we experience brokenness because of sin, and the way to escape that brokenness is not by ignoring it or numbing ourselves to sin’s painful effects, but rather coming to Christ with our brokenness to find healing and restoration. In the midst of our sin and pain, we can run to Christ and find that for which we’re really searching.

Elevating fantasy, missing reality

Another concerning aspect of Jamison’s story is seen in the startling admission Bridgette made about the reason she spends time on Second Life: “When I step into that space, I’m afforded the luxury of being selfish.” In Second Life, users can sleep in late, avoid responsibility, travel the world, have an illicit sexual encounter, and purchase houses and cars without limit. Self is at the center of the game. Indeed, even the name of the program, Second Life, indicates that its purpose seems to be to give users the opportunity to participate in everything they feel they may be missing out on in real life.

Before rushing to judgment, it is important to recognize this feeling is a common one. At one point or another, many of us have experienced a deep-seated fear that we might be missing out. What would life have been like had we taken a different path? What if we had chosen a different career or a different spouse? What if we had the opportunity to live a parallel life where we explored those possibilities? So Second Life users set about to create an alternate world where they try to do just that.

But ironically, by spending hours creating an artificial world, many of these users are missing out on real world-making. The creation mandate in Genesis 2:15 imbues every human with the commission to “work and keep” the garden, that is, to cultivate and cherish the world we actually inhabit, even in its flaws and blemishes. We are created to flourish within the world, but true flourishing can only take place as we live out our calling as image bearers of God, not as we try to create the world in our own image.

Craving new life, becoming a new man

Perhaps Second Life has shown us what its users—and for that matter, all of us—are really looking for: the opportunity to build a beautiful life. We crave new life. We desire life and we want life more abundant. We want true life. We want the life of the age to come. And we can have this life, but only if we have it in Jesus. If we truly desire new life, we must see it for what it really is. New life in Christ is not mere incremental improvement to our current existence—a new car, an upgrade to the house, an expensive body modification—but in fact, an entirely new existence. It is nothing less than transformation. As C.S. Lewis said,

God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.

Christ created us to soar. The emotional escape experienced when a person has another drink, or turns on Second Life one more time, is fleeting and vacuous. In Christ, we have both the sustaining power to endure life’s lowest moments and the resources to experience a taste of the life of the age to come in the midst of this present, evil age.

Andrew Hebert

Dr. Andrew Hébert is the lead pastor of Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas. He is the author of Shepherding Like Jesus: Returning to the Wild Idea that Character Matters in Ministry (B&H Books). Read More