What Is Real? Lessons from a virtual life

Order of service and message presented to Unitarian Universalist Association staff chapel Nov 10, 2009

What Is Real? Lessons from a virtual life

By day, Kenneth Sutton is the mild-mannered managing editor of UU World magazine. But by night, he is Otenth Paderborn, gentleman, landowner, Steampunk, and DJ in the virtual world of Second Life.

Chalice Lighting (by UUA Chaplain)

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.

First Reading: A Psalm of Life, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream! —
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, — act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

Hymn 315 This Old World

Words from a traditional American hymn, adapted

This old world is full of sorrow,
Full of sickness, weak and sore.
If you love your neighbour truly,
Love will come to you the more.

We’re all children of one family,
We’re all brothers, sisters too.
If you cherish one another
Love and friendship come to you.

This old world can be a garden,
Full of fragrance, full of grace;
If we love our neighbors truly,
We must meet them face to face.

It is said now, “Love thy neighbor,”
And we know well that is true;
This the sum of human labor,
True for me as well as you.

Sharing of Joys and Concerns

Reading Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28, William Shakespeare

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
                                   Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Hymn 109 As We Come Marching, Marching

Words by James Oppenheim

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

Sermon: What Is Real?

I know I should aspire to ensure that each of you, while sitting here, has a good chance of connecting all the dots I made in my choices of readings and hymns. I fear, however, that is not how I approach reality. Reality is, first, rough-and-tumble, but it also has shifting appearances and defies easy definition. If you don’t see the connections (or if you imagine others of your own), I invite you to engage with me in that sort of discussion best carried out after work at the 21st Amendment.

I’m involved in, and this service is inspired by my experiences in, Second Life, which is a persistent, three-dimensional, virtual, user-generated, social environment.

I recently attended SteamCon, a science fiction convention in Seattle. I went in order to meet people I already knew from Second Life, the third time I have met friends I previously knew only virtually. It is the consistency of these experiences, as well as oft-heard ribbing about virtual worlds or “computer games” or “social media” that spurred these reflections, which I first presented in a nondenominational Christian church service in Second Life.

Are the pixels one sees in Second Life real?
In the sense that we are not each dreaming, or imagining the screens before us, they are real.
They are real pixels, then.
No, they are not flesh. No, I do not have horns (although two people at SteamCon both offered to make horns for me).
To be real is to acknowledge inherent nature—and inherent limitations.

Is art real? –and not just in the facile sense of being real canvas and pigment.
And no, “I know it when I see it” isn’t a good answer, either.
Neither is “I like it.”
Art can take so many forms. What is it that makes it real art?
Among other things, real art is created with intention by an artist.
To be real is an acknowledgement of intent.
Real art is meant to feed the spirit and heart.
To be real is to acknowledge dimensions beyond what we can touch and see.

Is a telephone conversation real? Are the people on the other end of this conference call real?
Hello! Can anybody hear me?
It is real sound, created by real electromagnetic energy.
It is a real intention.
But what makes it a real conversation is not only the intention (leaving a message in voice mail is not a conversation!)
A real telephone conversation is communication.
To be real is to communicate.

Is love real?
It is a real emotional state–whether reciprocated or not, whether permanent or not, it can cause real differences in behavior, resulting in physical action in the world.
While it may take one by surprise, it is intentional when expressed.
It is, hopefully, communication.
But beyond that, healthy, mutual love is connection.
To be real is to connect.

So back to the pixels that one sees in Second Life.
Beyond the reality of their pixelness, the reality of the images,
they were created with intent
sometimes they were created to inspire
they were created to communicate
they were created to allow us to connect.
They are, while “only” real pixels, also real on a much deeper level.

So, the people at SteamCon:
Were the people real avatars?
Sometimes the genders didn’t match.
No one had horns, wings, or blue skin.
Some people were multiple avatars.
To acknowledge inherent nature, no, the humans and the avatars have a different inherent nature.

And yet,
and yet.
*Is* the inherent nature actually different?
It depends often on intent.
Does the human intend to use the avatar to deceive?
(Setting aside the fact that humans often intend to deceive, without the need for an avatar, and yet they are still “real” humans.)
Does the human intend to obfuscate or deny the relationship to the avatar?
(Setting aside the fact that humans often obfuscate or deny their previous actions, and yet they are still “real” humans.)
Is there a congruence between what the human and the avatar communicate?
Sometimes there is.
In many ways, there is a consistency between what is communicated by the avatar and by the human.
It doesn’t even have to be conscious–we humans are very good at reading one another’s subconscious communications.
Even if an avatar is meant not to reveal anything “real” about the human, how can it not?
We express our reality with every action we make. Every choice tells the world something real about us.
We cannot help but infuse our avatars with intimations of our human reality.

What is real?

Real is when someone at joys and concerns at a UU church service in Second Life shares that he has lost his job (and this, sadly, is shared all too often these days, in all of the social circles of Second Life).
Real is when one of your communities reminds a member faithfully every night to take his medications.
Real is when an acquaintance lets your community know she is undergoing chemotherapy.
Real is when your friend tells you her plans to leave her husband, who has Asperger’s, and to whom she is married only in name.
Real is when that friend tells you her husband has pancreatic cancer and she has decided to stick by him until he dies.

Sometimes, sometimes,
there is a connection.
And I don’t mean romance, or sex.
I mean those moments when we choose to reveal our hearts to another, and to witness another’s heart with respect and love.
That can happen here.
Is it not what we are hoping will happen at this very moment?

What is real?

This moment is real.

Savor it.

Hymn 128 For All That Is Our Life

Closing Words The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158, William Shakespeare
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Go in peace.

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