It’s hard for me to believe, but it’s been over 15 years since the film The Matrix blew everyone’s mind.
In the decade and a half since the film was released, the special effects and stunts that gave the movie such an overwhelming visual appeal have become standard and even clichéd. But the idea behind the film—that the world is nothing but an illusion—continues to resonate.
And that’s because we are living in an illusion. An illusion of consumerism…that is built on debt.
Here’s how it goes: We are told our entire lives that we need to buy things to be happy. Things like cars and houses and smartphones and the like. In order to buy things, we have to have a job—which we have generally accepted that we will hate—and credit, which will allow us to buy more things than we can afford.
So, because of this illusion, we spend our days doing work we don’t necessarily care about in order to earn money to pay for things that we don’t need simply because the consumerism Matrix that we live in tells us to.
Consider how Neo’s journey closely tracks with the journey to becoming financially independent:
Blue Pill or Red Pill
When Neo meets with Morpheus face-to-face for the first time, he is offered a choice: take the blue pill and return to normal life, or take the red pill and see what the real world looks like when he is no longer dreaming.
Though it’s unlikely that a gravel-voiced man in mirrored shades will give you a stark choice to begin your journey of financial independence, starting that journey does offer you an overwhelming choice like Neo’s:
You can choose to accept the standards of our society and continue to chase fulfillment through material things, or you can reject that idea and seek financial freedom.
Each choice has its downsides. If you choose freedom, you will be fighting against a system much larger than yourself and you may never feel as though you quite fit in. In many ways, you will live outside of society by removing yourself from the consumerism Matrix.
On the other hand, if you choose to accept the social standards of consumerism, you will live in relative comfort, but you will never feel truly satisfied. You will constantly be chasing a moving target—fulfillment—which you will never reach, no matter how much you buy.
As Morpheus puts it, the sense that “there’s something wrong with the world” is like a “splinter in your mind.” That certainly describes how it feels to be a mindless consumer. You may wonder when you’ll ever feel as if you have “arrived” at satisfaction with your life. Shouldn’t life feel better than this?
You have the choice: not fitting in, or feeling that splinter.
The Desert of the Real
Part of the reason why it is so difficult to unplug from the consumerism Matrix is because of how unpleasant the real world appears from the vantage point of living in the Matrix. Matrix denizens tend to think that financial freedom looks like the “real world” in the movie: eating the same mush every day; wearing worn out, unfashionable clothing; always feeling cold or uncomfortable; sleeping on a bare mattress; sacrificing all beauty for utility.
Since that is the consumerism Matrix idea of frugality and financial freedom, it’s no wonder that most people are willing to stick with the safety of what they know. Yes, there’s that mind-splinter problem, but it’s better to live with that and keep life’s little luxuries than live like a refugee from an apocalyptic future.
The film actually sums up this conundrum beautifully with the steak dinner scene between the traitor Cypher and Agent Smith. Cypher would prefer to live with the fake trappings of wealth—good food and wine, fame, comfort—than deal with reality. He assumes that he can only find fulfillment and happiness by living within the system.
Most of us are unaware that there is another way to live because we buy into the idea that financial freedom—being debt free and not having to work to support ourselves—is only available to the extremely wealthy or those crazy enough to live like paupers.
But real financial freedom doesn’t look anything like the “real world” of the film. Yes, you do have to give up some things, possibly even steak dinners. But once you unplug from the Matrix, you might realize that you don’t actually want everything you have been taught to want. You will come to realize that your freedom from the cycle of debt feels much better than having any material possession.
Throughout the film, Neo must fight the agents of the Matrix—intelligent programs created to seek out free humans and destroy them. Though Neo and his friends all recognize the agents for what they are, to the rest of the people in the Matrix, they are simply important authorities.
The agents of the consumerism Matrix fill a similar role. We hear from commercials, magazines, marketers, entertainment, and even people in power that material possessions are very important and that we can and should go into debt for those things. In our consumerism Matrix, the authorities tell us that we need to buy things to get ahead—things as diverse as an education to a new wardrobe twice a year to a bigger house.
But what was so insidious about the agents in the film was the fact that anyone who was not yet unplugged from the Matrix could become one. And strangely enough, that is true here in the consumerism Matrix we live in, as well.
For instance, six years ago my husband and I decided to live solely on his income and use mine to pay off a $30,000 home equity loan in about a year. When I mentioned this plan to a relative (who actually works in finance), she told me I was being foolish for trying to become debt free. Without warning, she had become an agent of the consumerism Matrix, trying to make me feel silly for going without certain material possessions in order to become debt-free.
This means that any individual attempting financial freedom has to not only be on the lookout for the agents they know are out there, but they also have to beware of their family, friends, co-workers, or neighbors, in case they also start talking like an agent. Anyone who has ever been made fun of for being cheap or driving an old car knows just how powerful these agent-proxies can be.
Open Your Eyes
“The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us…You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. [The truth] that you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.”
Neo chooses to leave the world that is not real. We can also choose to ignore the unreal Matrix of our own society. If we recognize the falsehood at the heart of our Matrix—the idea that things will make us happy—then we can break out of our prison and look for a real path to fulfillment.
Only with our eyes open can we live the life that we truly want.