As we go through our daily lives, there is a much that we take for granted as background to all that we experience. Certainly we have scientific physical laws that we rely on without even thinking about them, and having been tested repeatedly, we consider them a form of truth. Gravity, nuclear forces, electro-magnetism, quantum physics and so on are as near as we have to fundamental truth, and as a result we need not pay them any mind. There is something else, though, which we assume is reliably there for us that turns out to be elusive in any abundance. The difficult and strange commodity to which I refer is personal truth. The nature of it we pay little attention to, yet it shapes nearly our entire lives, and what it amounts to is our perspectives and perceptions of factual truth.
In living life, we base most of what we do and think on perspective – primarily our own but also those that we learn from others. For the latter, we have advisors of all kinds: legal, medical, spiritual, relational, policy, etc. Those advisors need not be professional; most often they are friends and family. But what they offer is rarely truth – it is simply another perspective. Further, what they offer may very well turn out to be actually false, or the path they suggest may lead one to a conclusion that rests on a misperception of reality. The sole contemplative self will often color perspective and alter perception, thoroughly muddying the waters as we try to make sense of a situation or determine a course of action. Our emotions, which have been formed throughout life and are influenced by evolutionary biology, usually trigger a distortion of how we could see the world. This can be the case especially in how we see others (particularly the result of assumptions made) or in what we believe or refuse to believe.
In law, governance, or religion, the issue of what is truth is often central, though sometimes not, but it always matters. Yet in such cases it is almost always an issue of perspective or, perhaps in these contexts it is more accurately described as “agenda.” As we go down that road, how we determine and then use “facts” is where the battle lines are drawn. The result of which is conflict over how a fact was determined and, if agreement can be reached, what that means. The potential for never-ending conflict exists, and often those that have the greatest numbers or power are the ones that carry the day.
But does truth even matter? We will say that it does, certainly. Deep down, however, do we recognize that we really do not believe in it? Tolstoy, in his search for truth and meaning was led to despair and nearly suicide. Quoting at length from Ecclesiastes in his “A Confession,” he realized that all was vanity. (But, see https://keefertonblog.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/a-time-for-everything/.) The problem is that truth, raw and unvarnished, and limited by what we can comprehend, leads to some very difficult realizations about life. So Tolstoy needed something more, and what he came up with was an apt universal definition of religion: man’s relationship to the infinite. The problem is that this broad definition can, of course, mean almost anything because you get to decide what the key terms “relationship” and “infinite” signify. While that is arguably “true,” to have this mean anything to a person, though, one has to step outside of conventional notions of truth and enter into myth – which is not to say “lie” – but simply “story.”
Why is this so? First, we can not know the future which has nearly infinite possibilities; second, the past is done and is less concrete than we realize. The historical past has meaning, and some factual truth, but it is always distorted and very, very incomplete. Our personal past is replayed in our minds and is changed and colored in our brain by our particular unique thoughts and experiences. This, for example, is why eye-witness testimony can be of questionable and conflicting reliability. It is also why we can be so sure that something happened or was said that was never the case. Even evidence such as a film or photograph are only representations – we only see from one perspective and we can not see what is outside the field of view. Furthermore, it is only in two dimensions. Poor substitutes for reality in the moment. To take this further, even the present moment, the now, can only be experienced from our perspective. Thus, it is substantially incomplete. So we can not see or know whole truth – it is an impossibility. The truth of our lives becomes a product of personal perspective. Most often, it seems, that we are the ones who get in the way of our search for truth.
We need something else, and so enters the “story.” For the individual, these are the stories with which we frame our lives, they are what we tell ourselves to figure out who we are and where we fit. The story becomes a mystical truth for us – it is the myth of self. It is, or can be, beautiful. It can also be dangerous. Or it can be all things. Why? Because it is not factual truth in the sense of accuracy or completeness. Therefore, it has the potential to be the home of lies, misperceptions, misunderstandings, and delusion. This matters because we do not live solitary lives, we live out our story in the context of the stories of others that are playing out. When two peoples’ stories clash, there is conflict. At such times, there is a great danger when one or more stories may be seriously flawed by the distortion of emotion or misperception. We see this manifest in the three great evils of perception that we commit against each other: judgment, gossip, and lack of forgiveness. Here, through these dark tools, we elevate our story against that of others, often the people closest to us. Likely, unjustifiably so. What we are doing is striking out at the other’s personhood and autonomy. We are attempting to de-legitimize their story in favor of our own, perhaps misguided, narrative. It is an attempt (even unconsciously) to spiritually control, dominate or imprison the other.
Still, the other chooses how to react if they are aware. They may reject the assault or perhaps modify their story in response. But if they know, they are changed in some fashion. And so, we are impacted by each other, sometimes by a mere few words no matter what they are – and those become truth in our story. But again, they are not facts. The contamination of perception, however, will spread to others who know as well. No one who is in the place of the existential third person, the observer, is left unchanged by the conflict. Their perspective has been modified, and the story replicates. We see this when a news story breaks with some salacious allegation. When more accurate information comes out, the stories are not nearly so well advertised, and the perception of the observers has been changed by the initial drama. Later, more reliable facts, might do nothing to change this.
Fortunately, we get to choose how we respond in the daily developing story of our lives. We can modify our thoughts and perceptions; we can change our minds. We can choose to try to turn all things to good. To do so, however, requires a belief and the mental wherewithal to apply the concept that all things work together for good, or that it will all work out in the end. Outside the context of mystical belief, is such a position justified? Idiotic platitudes such as “that which does not kill me makes me stronger,” as Christopher Hitchens pointed out, are another form of deception. No. Wounds hurt, and they often make us weaker. Telling lies to ourselves does not address the issue; this only buries it. As Charles Williams noted, accuracy is by all means necessary, otherwise love and forgiveness are stripped of their meaning. And here is where we find a key. Our mythical story should be as accurate as our reasoning can make it, but with the recognition that we can never know all there is to know. Further, toward another person, we only see through a glass darkly, and we know so little of their story and its truth. It is not ours to retell or distort through our lens.
It seems that the very path by which we can bridge the gap of the impossibility of truth, of the breach caused by any form of misperception, is by reversing those means of the evils of misperception. By practicing love without judgment, refraining from gossip, and granting forgiveness, we, to our great joy, learn that the story of the other need not be in conflict with our own, that we realize that we do not have to discern the truth of the other that is impossible to know fully, and that they and their story are valuable and legitimate. Turning this further inward to the self, we can imagine how our story works in a way that values the limited truth of what we know about who we are, while reducing conflict with others, and recognizing the value in other people. Then the outward expression of this offers the possibility of a continual positive cycle that can take us far beyond ourselves and establish a beautiful truth of who we are in this world.