Portfolio Essay

April Norris
MALS Reflective Essay
24 March 2014
(Download as PDF)

Reality 2.0: My MALS Journey

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. ~Albert Einstein” 

The Matrix is a 1999 classic science fiction film whose main character’s consciousness is embedded in “the Matrix”, a virtual-reality world that has been created by complex, emotive machines.[1] Now, you might be wondering what a sci-fi film has to do with the UNCG MALS program, (especially if you’ve never viewed the movie!), so if you’ll indulge me for a moment I’ll explain. In thRed Pill Blue Pille movie, our hero “Neo” is given the fateful choice between two colored pills: a blue pill or a red one. The blue pill will grant him the ability to return to his life as he understands it; an unconscious- simulated existence. The red pill ultimately unveils the reality about his world and how it really works- for better or worse- spoiler alert: Neo chooses the red pill. Much like “Neo”, the MALS program I embarked on was akin to me swallowing the red pill.

When I review my entrance essay submission for the MALS program, I am regrettably embarrassed. I can remember thinking about how important it was to have the word “Masters” listed on my resume. My initial thoughts were that it would add credence to my professional experience, even possibly garner a higher salary. That was my end goal at the time after all, and I had struggled with the decision not to seek a prestigious MBA program. My undergraduate degree is in business administration, and my entire career has been focused on marketing and advertising. Yet the idea of staring at endless spreadsheets and discussing return on investment strategies ad nausea made my head spin. There had to be more to learn and more to life than the bottom line; using my Matrix analogy…the MBA program equated to the blue pill. The UNCG MALS program was my answer for something different, yet I did not know how far out of my comfort zone the program would take me. My very first class, Religion and Ecology snapped me into reality very quickly and the classes to come, Problems of Modern Belief and Simple Living in a Complex Age would force me to explore my world view and life goals through a different lens. The additional classes Emerging Powers, Revolutions in Scientific Thought, and even Shakespeare: A Muse of Fire served to awaken realities about my world that I had chosen to forget about or even acknowledge.


The Religion and Ecology class really had a profound effect on me, and actually helped clarify something I’ve always been weary of investigating on a personal level. My belief or non-belief in a higher power. In my final paper for the class I explain:

“If my pantheistic view holds that God is the universe and universe is God, it does not allow me to separate or define spirit as opposed to matter. After reading “The Sacred Balance”, “The Body of God”, and “The Great Work”, I can clearly accept and believe in fact that spirit and matter is separate, that God contains, but is not identical to, the universe, therefore I must alter my worldview to that of “panentheism.” The distinctions between the two are subtle but powerful for me as an individual.” [2]
The revelation for me on a personal level was that “spirit” does matter, there has to be transcendence for all for us to live in the web of life and infused in everything we do. “The land, the animals, and the people have the spirit- they all must be shown respect. That is the basis of our law.” (pg. 184 Suzuki)[3] During and after this class I continually thought about how I was living my life, was I infusing spirit into my work, my family, my hobbies? The answer was no. No I was not, I was simply drowning in daily “busyness” that was not “real”. What do I mean by that? My “busy” was a self-inflicted work schedule created by my own ambition that was utterly meaningless.

People in general, I started noticing, appear to become anxious or even guilty when they weren’t working or promoting their career ambitions in the workplace.  In today’s society, our sense of identity is tied to our net worth, and we base our “worthiness” on our level of business productivity chasing the bottom line and bigger bank accounts. This blind ambition bleeds over into our personal lives, bigger house, better car, the list goes on. Modern Problems of Belief and Simple Living in a Complex Age really opened my eyes to the fact that my entire career in marketing and advertising has helped to perpetuate the idea the more is better. As I discuss in my “Simple Living” paper:

“For over fifteen years my sole purpose day in and day out has been to encourage consumer behavior; I know every trick in the book. Based off of years of research, I know that it is our gluttonous desire for more money, more recognition and more power; that we have a covetous and obsessive need to compete with and compare ourselves to others. Our insatiable urge to acquire stuff, whether or not it is necessary, has indeed reached epidemic proportions. It’s not only that the more money and stuff  we get, the smaller our “gains”; it’s that money and “more stuff” is making us depressed, anxious and miserable causing severe social and cultural disruption while deforming the basic values of our society.” (Norris, pg. 2 Affluenza[4])

In today’s society, our sense of identity is tied to our net worth, and we base our “worthiness” on our level of business productivity chasing the bottom line and bigger bank accounts.
Realizing that I have been contributing to creating a reality that most people are unable to attain was not a pleasant realization. Professor Headington actually commented that he could feel the “guilt” coming out on our discussion board posts and that it wasn’t necessary. However I can’t quite shake the guilt of contributing to a false sense of reality. As I mentioned in a Modern Problems of Belief paper:

“As Bauman states, people build their identity on fast changing consumption models, (and as individuals come to learn), this is a model for an unfulfilled life. From a marketer’s perspective, Bauman’s evaluation shows that organizations and brands have a moral role and an interest in a society that expresses their identity both as individuals and as members of communities.” (Norris, pg.1 Bauman paper.[5])
The consequences and impact that my daily work has had on society never dawned on me; oddly enough, I think of the Shakespeare dilemma here. Of course, he did not realize he was inventing an alternate reality for his most famous subjects like Henry V and Richard III through his plays. Whatever his intention, the reality is that Shakespeare’s adeptness at “bringing dead bodies to life” or rather, to build a personality and character into historical figures is exactly how he was able to “bend history” and create an alternate reality for historical figures. Many people believe that Shakespeare’s plays are historical fact and of course… they are not. The plays are a created reality authored by an extremely savvy writer, very similar to how our modern day news shows operate. People either don’t care, or are too consumed and busy with their daily lives to noticed the difference between what is real and what is not. They are too busy to notice what is happening to the world on a global level.

In the “Emerging Powers” course, I was shocked, saddened, and quite frankly embarrassed regarding my complete lack of knowledge and awareness about foreign powers that will no doubt have an increasing impact on our busy lives here in the United States. For the final group project, I built a website as the final presentation, which enabled me to interact on a more personal level with each group member. I understood what their point of view was, even though they varied from my own, and was able to forge a very collaborative voice and visual story that connected our ideas. This process took time, even though we were all very “busy” we were forced to stop our daily routine and really jump into developing our story. It dawned on me then that the present frenzy of “busyness”, consumerism and lack of knowledge is certainly not a necessary or fated condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen to participate in and accept isn’t it? If only by our compliance to it, we are choosing to live in our own altered realities. Just like in “the Matrix”, people are unaware of the fact that they’re in a bad situation and are happy to go about their everyday lives without the knowledge to break free.

Of course, it’s not as if we truly want to live like this; that fact of the matter is it’s something we collectively force one another to do via implemented societal norms. The question then becomes, “how do we change this pattern?” More importantly for me, how can I, as an individual influence this change? “The Matrix” movie suggests that there’s something bad about life in living a curated reality, but the people trapped have to understand this before they can start to make a change. Of course, it is difficult to wake up and realize the grim realities, but this as a choice worth making. In my final paper for “Revolutions in Scientific Thought” I wrote about Albert Einstein, who has been a historical hero of mine since grade school. Einstein’s scientific achievements were impressive of course. But what stood out for me was his genuine wonderment about the universe. Einstein was someone who was struck by the beauty of nature and was in awe of the world no matter what reality was for him at the time. Indeed, the MALS program has ignited this wonderment for me. The professors, classes, and fellow students have awakened and encouraged within me the knowledge to break free of my “busy” status quo, and I look forward to the new journey I am on.


Monday, March 3rd, 2014- My grandmother, 99 years of age, died in her sleep. I referenced her often during my MALS journey in various papers as the life lessons she taught me over the years were reflected in some of our course work. In my final paper for Religion and Ecology I wrote:

“Just as Berry recounts on page 32, “The field was covered with white lilies rising above the thick grass. A magic moment, this experience I can remember”, my “meadow” was a thick patch of grass near my grandmother’s garden, situated between the chicken coop and the watermelon patch. I use to lie in the grass looking up into the tangled, massive chaos of intertwining oak tree limbs and leaves. At the time, I never thought that one day I would be grateful for getting to grow up on my grandmother’s farm, surrounded by gardens, animals, flowers, bees- all around stunning nature.” [6]
My grandmother was a farmer at heart; she shared the yield from her fields with the community and always made sure everyone had somewhere to sleep at night and plenty of food to eat. She never drove a car, did not have Internet or many of our modern conveniences but managed to live a full, meaningful life that impacted all around her. She will always remain the biggest influence on my life.

Works cited:

  • [1] Internet Movie Database: “The Matrix” Accessed on Feb. 27th, 2014 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/
  • [2] Norris, April- Ecology & Religion Final Paper pg. 1
  • [3] Suzuki, David (2007) The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature, Greystone Books; 3rd edition
  • [4] Norris, April Simple Living in a Complex Age “Affluenza” paper pg. 2
  • [5] Norris, April Modern Problems of Belief “Bauman part 1” paper pg. 1
  • [6] Norris, April Religion and Ecology Final paper pg. 2

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