Back in the corridor, I waited for Haley to come through the door. I couldn’t imagine what could possibly have been taking her so long―what was it that she still had to do in there? I almost didn’t want to know.
Finally, the door swung open, and Haley stepped out, a smug smile on her face. “That takes care of that,” she said. “I find it astounding that no matter how many times people are warned by their elders of the hardship of child rearing, they insist on jumping in anyway. Who in their right mind would willingly sign away the next twenty or so years of their lives? All that lost sleep, lost resources, and lost time for something so easy to avoid. It simply baffles me. Do you have children, Architect?”
“God, no. All my colleagues do though. And every time they complain about not having slept the night before, or leave work to go take care of their sick kid, my decision looks better and better. What drives people to initiate another life at the cost of their own? I’m always curious at the reasoning behind it.”
“There’s no reasoning at all. Rather, it comes from a blind assumption that leaving something behind will grant them purpose: A purpose that outlives them and spreads through this world like a weed. They throw their seeds to the wind like shots in the dark. I wonder whether they would continue to reproduce if they knew the collapse was coming―if they would be willing to subject an innocent life to such a miserable existence.”
I scoffed. “Of course they would. They already did, even during the Second World War, when it was supposed to be the end of days. Not even then did people stop having children. It’s sickening, the willingness to do anything to distract from the present reality.”
Haley laughed. “At least we agree on something, my architect. You know, you and I are much more alike than we are different. Cynicism is a useful tool―it can help you see beyond the illusions that this world crams down your throat.” She started walking down the corridor. “Onward, darling.”
I approached the end of the corridor, expecting the same two-door structure as all the previous trials, but this time, the hallway simply ended abruptly, forming a perfect T-junction with one door heading to the right and another to the left. On the wall directly in front of me, there were two signs in the shapes of arrows. The one to the left read Direction A, while the other showed Direction B. I paused in front of the crossroads, unsure of how to proceed. None of the previous doors mentioned “Direction.” Perhaps this was another stage? Was I progressing to another level of the tour?
“Tick tock, Architect. Make a choice.” Haley’s voice broke my train of thought.
I searched the wall for any kind of indicator, but there was nothing except the two signs. “This isn’t much to go off of,” I said to Haley, who was tapping her foot impatiently. “Spirit, a little help here?” I asked the room.
No answer. I waited another ten seconds, then tried again. “Hello? Anybody there? Can I get a little more information here, please?”
“What do you need more information for?” said Haley.
“So that I can know what choice I should make,” I answered. “Isn’t that obvious?”
“Not at all. You can gather all the information you want, but in the end, when you make the choice, you have no fucking clue what’s going to happen. It’s a fact of life, darling. Now, choose. I don’t have all day.”
“I disagree. With enough information, I believe you can make a fairly solid prediction. For instance, I can say that if I drop my pen, it will fall to the floor. That’s because I know the Law of Gravity and can apply it to the circumstances. You see? This is why we rely on mathematics and science in the first place! To gather the information necessary to make useful predictions about the world around us.”
Haley squinted. I could tell that she was calculating, forming her next argument. “And what would happen if the sun were to die, instantly changing the effect of gravity here on earth. Do you think that your pen will fall to the floor then?”
“Well, obviously not, but the probability of that happening is extremely low,” I scoffed.
“But not zero,” said Haley. “Therefore, you can never say with absolute certainty what the outcome will be. I thought you were an architect, not a physicist,” she teased.
“I am, but we use the same principles. Risk management is a huge part of my job, and it involves a great deal of predictive modeling. We use it to evaluate our decisions to make sure that we choose the correct one.”
Haley rolled her eyes. “You are so naive, darling. Fine. Even if you could predict with 100% accuracy the consequences of your actions, it doesn’t negate the fact that as a human being living in this reality, you have no free will. In fact, such a thing doesn’t exist.”
“What?” Free will? She was starting to go off the rails on this one. “Of course I have free will. I can choose to stand here in this corridor all day and wait for you to―”
I whirled around, trying to locate the source of danger. “What? What is it?” The corridor was still empty around us. I turned back. She was laughing hysterically.
“You look ridiculous,” she gasped, wiping away her tears.
I realized that I had been tricked. “Nice. Real mature,” I muttered. I took a deep breath and tried to slow my heart rate.
“Why did you jump? I’m sure you didn’t choose to do that.”
“Why did I? I thought we were being attacked!”
Haley nodded. “Exactly. Your body reacted before you could even process what was happening. It’s better that way―the slow, methodical mind is no match for the savagery of nature. So much of what we do is decided by these automatic pathways: what foods we gravitate toward, the fact that we sleep at night, when we shit, even the people that we are attracted to. All of these things that people commonly believe are under their control are actually a program of their original design―their true nature.”
“Yes, but what does that have to do with free will? True, I have reflexes. Everyone does. Yet, higher-level decisions require a lot more than automatic reactions.”
“Oh, do they?” Haley’s eyes glinted. “How did you end up working for your company? Did you choose it of your own accord?”
I thought back. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. I weighed my options and found that this company best suited my needs.”
“Even so, you had to apply, right? How many people did you have to please before you got the job? Or rather, how many people also had to choose you?”
I saw her point. Between the interviews with HR and my team leaders, the entire hiring process had taken about a month, and very little of it seemed to be in my control. The only thing I could do was sign on the dotted line after the offer had already been decided on.
“Don’t you see? You could have willed yourself into the job all you wanted, but in the end, whether you got it or not depended on something much larger than you―like a pixel in a computerized image.”
“Fine.” I was starting to get exasperated with her arguments. “At least I can control my own thoughts.”
“Can you? All right then.” Haley smirked. It annoyed me how she seemed to know my every move. “Stop thinking. Right now.”
I tried it, but I soon found it to be an impossible task. As soon as I would quiet my mind for a second, an errant thought rushed in, distracting me once again.
Noticing my frustration, Haley said, “Don’t worry. The conscious mind can be compared to a river. It can change course, drop, go underground, emerge, and encounter rapids, but it cannot simply be stopped. The riverbed was carved out by your parents, the stones have been placed there by your education, and the waterfalls were put there by significant events in your life. The water may be yours, but you’ll soon find that the whole system negates the very idea of agency.”
I tried to understand what she was implying. Had I never truly decided anything in my life? Which of my decisions had truly been my own, without any external influence or pressure?
“You’re scratching your head,” Haley said, laughing.
I hadn’t even noticed I was doing it. “Habit,” I mumbled, lowering my hand.
“Well, now that you know that your ‘decision’ doesn’t matter and was never truly yours to begin with, shall we proceed?”
“What’s the point?” I said, lowering to the floor. “I can sit here forever. That way, I won’t fall victim to my apparent lack of free will.”
Haley sighed in exasperation. “Stubbornness won’t get you anywhere, Architect. I’ll play along―say you actually did stay here for the rest of today, and into tomorrow. Eventually, your feeble human body would require food or water, or you would need to defecate. Your brilliant plan to hack your lack of free will would eventually backfire. I know it’s upsetting and inconvenient, but you must remember that the important thing is to keep moving forward, no matter what.”
Her tone had become surprisingly sincere. She extended her hand in an offer to help me to my feet. I took it, then set to examining the signs again. “Fine, then. I choose Direction B.”
“B? Interesting. I thought you would have chosen A,” said Haley, winking.
I started walking down the corridor to the right. At the very end was yet another door. I pushed it open and was instantly engulfed in a wave of heat. Stepping through the threshold, the first thing I noticed was the sand beneath my feet, extending to either side of me. The sun reflected on the white surface and sent shimmering mirages rising up toward the sky. I took a deep breath and inhaled the sweet saltiness spraying from the ocean. Shielding my eyes from the blinding sun, I took in my surroundings: The beach extended about a half a mile to the right before disappearing around a cove. Behind me, a forest of palm trees concealed the remainder of the landscape. I appeared to be on some kind of tropical island. In front of me, the glittering aquamarine waters extended toward a seemingly infinite and empty horizon. It reminded me of an ad for a travel agency that I passed every day on my way to work―a photograph of an island in the Caribbean.
Haley sidled up beside me. “I love this view, don’t you? Not another human in sight. Solitude is a precious rarity, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t answer her. Already, the heat had caused the saliva in my mouth to turn to a thick paste. I bent down to take off my shoes, then I unbuttoned my suit jacket and tied it around my head to protect myself from the sun.
“What’s the point of this? What am I supposed to do here?” I asked Haley.
“Whatever you want! You’re a free, independent agent, aren’t you? Out here, you have no one to answer to, no job to go to, no friends to ask anything from you. It’s true freedom, isn’t it, Architect?”
My thirst was growing worse by the minute. I walked toward the ocean, cupped a handful of water in my hands, and splashed it into my mouth. I wasn’t going to ingest it; I simply wanted the sensation of liquid. The bitterness of the salt made me gag and nearly vomit.
Retreating under a tree for shade, I sat down. Every muscle in my body was shutting down, one by one. Haley, on the other hand, seemed completely unaffected by this environment. “Haley, please,” I rasped. “I need water.”
“You have a smartphone, don’t you? Why don’t you use that to look up where to find it? I’m sure there’s an app for that. Or maybe you could order some food for us! Have it delivered right to this coconut tree for maximum convenience.”
I took my phone out of my pocket and tried to pull up a map of the island with my GPS feature. Maybe if I can orient myself, I can start moving toward a lake or river. Anything with fresh water, I thought, opening my maps feature.
The phone had no reception. Nothing was loading. In a fit of frustration, I chucked the phone as far away from me as possible. It landed with a plop in the surf.
“What’s the plan now, Architect? Wait for death? Sounds like fun. You let me know how that goes.” Haley started walking away from me, down the beach.
I tried to call out after her, but I didn’t have the strength, so it came out almost like a whisper. “Wait! Haley! Come back!”
To my suprise, she stopped and turned back toward me. “What am I supposed to do? Save your sorry ass? I’m not going to take responsibility for your life just because you are too weak to survive on your own. Enjoy dehydration; I’ve heard it’s horribly painful.”
She walked on and disappeared in a shimmer of heat. I was truly alone now. My breath started coming out in ragged gasps, and the skin on my lips started peeling, exposing the raw layers beneath.
Water. I had to find water, or else I was definitely going to die.
Drawing on a strength that I didn’t know I even possessed, I crawled away from the ocean and toward the rainforest. The hum of the insects was deafening. Clawing through the labyrinth of vines and ferns, I struggled to keep moving forward, listening for any sign of water―a trickle, a droplet, dew, anything that would save me from the horrible death that I was now staring in the face.
Suddenly, out of the brush emerged a man. In one hand, he wielded a spear, and in the other, a large oval shield decorated with diamonds and stripes. He looked exactly like the Maasai warriors I had spent some time with when I visited East Africa on sabbatical. I had spent a month observing the tribe, who appeared to live without any modern influence. This man and I regarded each other, and I folded my hands and raised them to my lips, miming the action of drinking water. He simply stared at me, then slowly shook his head and disappeared into the trees.
“No, please!” I tried to crawl after him, but my hand slipped on a rock, and I collapsed to the forest floor. There was nothing left to give―my systems were starting to shut down. Even my eye sockets had dried out completely, and I let the heavy lids close.
I awakened in the corridor. Haley knelt by my side, a glass of water in her hand. She offered it to me. Even though I was no longer experiencing the dehydration induced by the simulation, I took it anyway and gulped it down greedily. The liquid felt wonderful running down my throat.
“Thank you,” I gasped. We sat in silence for a moment. I wanted to ask her something, then thought better of it.
“No, go ahead,” she urged, reading my mind once again. “You have a right to know.”
I gathered my thoughts. “If modernity took away our ability to survive, then how is anyone going to survive the collapse? I mean, if it becomes a free-for-all struggle with our environment, won’t that mean the deaths of thousands of people? Millions, even?”
“Yes, without a doubt,” said Haley. “But not everyone will be affected in the same way. That Maasai warrior, for instance, is more than equipped to survive these circumstances. It will feel no different to him. He is accustomed to relying upon himself and his tribe for survival, and he has no use or need for the enslavement of modernity. He grows his own food, makes his own clothes, builds his home by hand, and knows every single water source in his environment like you know your own telephone number.”
I nodded and absorbed what she said as I stared down into the glass I’d needlessly emptied, not because of any real thirst, but because I’d thought I had to.
>>> This is a chapter from the book: THE MANUAL: FOR A LIFE THAT CAN STAND THE TEST OF TIME