I was annoying as a child. I never quite bought my father’s evasions and half-truths. It turns out that, “I agreed to take the blame for your mom’s mental illness,” was an obfuscation, maybe even a bit of a lie, since he was having sex with his secretary for a year and a half while finding other reasons to explain pushing my mother away. My questions might include why he cut me out of his will entirely except to specify explicitly that I wasn’t to get a copy of his unpublished electronic journals.
My mother’s “truth” was found in The Holy Bible, chapter and verse. I didn’t buy this either.
And my stepmother’s hearts and flowers and “loving us all equally” while treating her own children somewhat differently than the three whose family she busted up was sometimes difficult to overlook. I do admit that her second best was still pretty good if you don’t care much about cooking and cleaning and just look for kindness and cheerfulness.
It all came to a head for me during the Vietnam War, when friends and family lost all touch with reality, when fact and reason took a back seat to nationalism and dogma. We stuck an inappropriate label on people 8,000 miles away, listened to a simplistic theory, inaccurately applied, and ignored a great number of relevant facts while murdering about 3,000,000 people in their own country and sometimes even in their own homes.
I knew there was a fundamental flaw in my society and I couldn’t stop myself from trying to help fix it.
My daughter and friends blithely talk about “my reality” and “your reality” and it just infuriates me.
Here we sit in air-conditioned buildings, listening to music electronically reproduced wherever and whenever we want. We talk into a tiny rectangle and pizza shows up on our doorstep, hot and ready to eat or we pull dinner out of our freezer and toss it into the microwave for two or three minutes. All around us are the benefits we have reaped by embracing observation and logic rather than belief and mysticism. Yet we persist in making opinion equal to fact and bias equal to truth.
Science can be wrong. This I admit. When money, prestige and tenure place fat thumbs on the scales of reason and argument, science can get a long way out of balance. But science is, ultimately, self-correcting. And science has, over the last 300 years, drastically improved our lives.
Before the advent of science, we had the age of belief. Almost all thought in Europe and the Middle East was controlled by religious authorities who got “truth,” laws, and what they thought of as “reality” from religious manuscripts. And we had stagnation, decay, disease, and a rigid system without room for growth or change.
Childbearing was life-threatening. Plagues swept the larger cities. Serfs were bound to the land and the local lord with scant promise of a different life for their children. Knights were bound to the local lord. The local lord was bound to the regional lord. And the regional lords were bound to the King and were required to follow his demands: to marry whom he told them to marry – to fight whom and where and when he told them to – and to provide any and all assistance he required. Freedom at all levels was almost non-existent. Social mobility was rare. And living conditions were appalling.
Before science, almost everyone in Western Civilization believed that sin caused disease. That’s what they were taught. That was the “truth” in their minds. But it wasn’t true. And, because it wasn’t true, midwives and doctors didn’t think to wash or sterilize before invading the body — and many people died as a result.
Science starts with the assumption that there is one reality. It may have many aspects, perspectives and descriptions — some of which might appear to contradict others — but it is, ultimately, consistent and whole.
Perspective: While one sees the glass as half full and the other as half empty, the glass has the same amount of water.
Context: Liquor is legal in most American states and illegal in some Arab states. Both are true.
Timing: While the desert is usually arid, a flash flood might make it muddy and muggy.
Semantics: While the word “truth” has a specific meaning for me, it appears to mean something different to others. For me, it means “conforming as closely as possible to a singular reality which is — given differences in perspective, context, timing, and semantics — the same for everyone everywhere.
The biggest problem I have with personal “truth” is that it breeds complacency. We don’t bother to dig a bit deeper. We don’t stop to reflect on the ramifications of our assumptions. We get to be “right” without humility, effort, or sincerity.
It’s a bit like being forgiven again and again without making amends or changing behavior: a cheat that feels good to the ego but generally fails the test of time.
Truth isn’t easy. Often it isn’t sure. There are a lot of “ifs” and “maybes” in it. And, these days, I find myself qualifying it with a lot of “I thinks.” But it’s a worthy goal. If we strive for it with all our might, we can get closer, and by getting closer to it, I believe we will get closer to each other as well.
The alternative is polarization: red states and blue states, socialists and capitalists, or “terrorists” and the people who, in their self-aggrandizing ignorance and lack of humility, caused the original terror.
We cannot undo our horrendous conduct in Vietnam and Iraq but I hope we don’t excuse, dismiss, or forgive it too easily. Maybe it would be better to be wrong than to try the same studied ignorance, the same cocky bravado, the same “might makes right” in our current disputes with North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Russia.
Truth has another perspective that we’ve been ignoring for a long time. Our choice has been to cling doggedly to a “greatness” that is pretentious, ingenuous, and ineffective. Jesus suggests generosity, love, patience, understanding, humility and turning the other cheek. Other parts of The Holy Bible suggest more violence will solve the problem that violence caused in the first place, but I know with all my heart that violence won’t. Violence has, over and over, merely made things worse.
And, my cherished friends, the truth is nearby and within our reach. If we can travel to the moon and back, if we can invent air conditioning, we can stop bullying and butchering each other.
My father, despite his flaws, taught me that the truth isn’t subject to wishes or wills. And one of my mother’s favorite sayings was, “The truth will set you free.” We all have a piece of it and, together, if we strive to understand the other side, I am confident that we can put this puzzle together into a single whole, a consistent unity.
What choices do we have?
Shall we continue to condemn Arabs for their reactions to our bullying? Shall we continue to force our perspectives and values on everyone else: English, the dollar, corporate capitalism, pervasive disinformation in advertising and politics and belief as the ultimate arbiter of truth? Shall we continue to pursue “greatness” with smart bombs, nuclear-armed carrier fleets, drones, and assassinations?
Only humility can save us from ourselves. Pride and prejudice will continue to deceive us into greed, grandiosity, and a fixed perspective that polarizes the world into factions and blinds each side to the other side of the truth, the other parts that are also true.
My mother had another saying, “In acceptance lieth peace.” Maybe she meant it as a mantra for herself as she struggled to accept her harsh fate: a broken marriage, a schizophrenic mind and, toward the end, a body she gradually lost control over. But I take it as something bigger: accepting the world, ourselves and each other as we truly are: the good — and the stuff we’d rather sweep under the carpet.