The mushroom theory

Amy and her ex-husband, in Enlightened

A friend of mine told me a story of walking in the forest and seeing a spider on a mushroom in the rain. “We are like that spider,” he said. “We are all just trying to find a mushroom to live on in this big forest of the universe.”

I’ve been thinking about this quote, in the context of the show Enlightened [spoiler alert].

Enlightened is about a woman, Amy, who becomes a whistleblower. She works for a large corporation which is dumping toxic waste and paying off politicians. With help from her co-workers, she hacks into the CEO’s accounts and leaks emails to a journalist.

The interesting thing about the show is that Amy’s motivations are mixed. Yes, she is motivated by making the world a better place, but she’s also motivated by being liked by her colleagues, and by romance.

As humans, finding our mushroom — our good life — within the vast universe requires meeting many needs on Maslow’s hierarchy. In the case of Amy, her life is lacking in purpose, romance and belonging. She thinks she can solve all her problems by blowing the whistle on her employer.

In Amy’s mind, once she takes a single courageous act, people will respect her. She will belong to a community of activists. She will have a satisfying romance with the journalist. She will make the world a better place. All her problems will be solved.

The journalist, it turns out, doesn’t actually care about her. At the show’s conclusion, Amy goes back to her ex-husband, who does.

One thing I took from Enlightened is there isn’t one mushroom that will meet all of our needs. Creating a well-balanced, good life is infinitely more complex for a human being than for a spider. In addition to physical needs for food and shelter, we humans have psychological needs, like romance, belonging and purpose.

Nonetheless, I like the image of the spider on a mushroom in the rain. Just like our needs and their fulfillment, weather patterns and mushrooms are dynamic. No matter how comfortable we may feel for a time, eventually the weather changes, and, like the spider, we have to seek out new mushrooms in the forest.

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