“Opinions are cheap. Data is cheap. Personal truths?… those are hard won.” These are all comments gleaned from our most recent Meaning Place conversation, TRUTH.
What is truth?
This overwhelming question becomes much more manageable if separated into two aspects: first, how do facts, information and “objective reality” constitute truth? Second, what are personal truths and how do they differ from hard facts or opinions?
My beloved pastime of going down the etymological rabbit hole brought up some interesting results. Truth derives in part from the Mercian word treowð, which meant “faith, faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty; veracity, quality of being true; pledge, covenant”. Not until the 1560’s has the word truth been used to define whether something is accurate, factual, correct, or not.
Now tell me this doesn’t already open a Pandora’s Box? Well, to me it does, as it points me straight to our beliefs, values and morals. And aren’t, especially beliefs, just that? Beliefs, as in not necessarily verifiable, maybe even not real. I would argue, not so. Hear me out if you will.
Let me introduce you to Rachel Naomi Remen, an author and clinical professor of family and community medicine, who uses story as a pathway to healing. She found that in her work with cancer patients addressing merely the medical facts did little to actually heal them, in particular with terminally ill patients once all treatments had been used there was nothing left to offer (this was before hospice care). These medical diagnoses, which are momentous life facts, couldn’t just be reduced down to physical treatment. They needed to be dealt with in terms of how they affected the entire life of the ill person. What did the disease make them turn to for meaning? To Mrs Remen the facts of our lives, which for ill people is their medical diagnosis, are just the bones of the story. They don’t tell you everything, but without them the story wouldn’t exist in its current form. The facts need to be put in context of how they are being experienced.
Let’s make this concrete with a personal example!
A dramatic fact of my life is that I witnessed someone being killed right next to me, by being hit by a car, as we were walking down the street. This alone doesn’t tell you enough, however. It doesn’t tell you how it has affected the entire rest of my life. But if I go on to tell you that one of my core personal truths is that I believe life is too short to be lived unintentionally, then you see a much fuller picture of who I am. We can’t separate one from the other (facts from personal truth and vice versa).
What I am getting at here is that our personal truths are arrived at through our experiences, and have therefore been deeply ingrained into our system via intense emotions and sensations. Unlike opinions they are not just thoughts. Therefore, if someone were to tell me that my personal truths are wrong, it wouldn’t really make a difference to me, especially since they are constantly tempered with doubt and pain for the world anyway. And yet, I arrive back at them.
Once you are aware of some personal truths I would argue it is prudent to investigate whether or not they actually serve you. Ideally, they will become strong tethers, keeping you anchored when life gets tumultuous. But they can also have the opposite effect and put you in a constant position of defensiveness if threatened by perceived contradictions. The German philosopher, Gadamer, said that it is a sign of a society’s strength how it deals with contradiction. I would add that this is true for our personal truths as well.
It bears pointing out that truth has much to do with trust and courage. Whom do we trust for information, and is this trust warranted? Can I be brave enough to truly listen well?
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that “for things to reveal themselves to us, we must be ready to abandon our views about them.” But in times like these, when so much seems at stake, it feels like an especially tall order to abandon our views to listen better.
I heard this lovely story about a Buddhist monk, who was asked why he didn’t get upset when students went off to study different meditation techniques with other masters. His answer was that the truth does not suffer from comparison.
Listening well, or like Rachel Naomi Remen puts it, “listening generously” doesn’t mean opening the floodgates and being picked up with the current, if your personal truth is a true tether. The currents of new and challenging insights might have you swaying left or right, up or down, but ideally your truth will provide you with a place from which to survey the waters around you.
As John O’Donohue points out ”we have unlearned the patience and attention of lingering at the thresholds where the unknown awaits us.” So here are three concrete things that have helped me with this predicament.
Mu, Yoga and Beauty.
Mu is a concept from the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which encourages you to ask a better question in order to get to a fuller truth. In essence, don’t repeat the same old questions folks in your echo chamber have been throwing at the other side. Instead, ask yourself what it is you are truly curious about and what question might be generous enough to elicit a fuller answer.
And yoga? Yes, we have all taken a class by now. I know! But at its best, yoga makes you more attentive and curious by encouraging you to turn toward the most annoying of sensations. It tells you not to curse the instructor inwardly for putting you in a difficult pose, or to mentally check out and just go through the motions, but instead to ask good questions. “What do I feel? Burning, throbbing, stinging? Where? Will it go away if I breathe more deeply, if I shift, or do I have to get out of the pose and get back into it more carefully?” This level of courageous curiosity will start to spill into many more aspects of your life.
Lastly, I wanted to point to art and the fact that some truths can be stated so much more poignantly in a poem, story, or piece of music than through the mere recitation of facts.I believe it is beauty that facilitates that. And by that, I don’t mean “pretty” beauty, but “awe inspiring” beauty.
There are so many people who have made major contributions to the understanding of our species who all bring beauty into the mix. Scientists for example will judge the soundness of their equations based on how beautiful they are, as in, how “simple and without complication”.
The poet John O’Donohue offers insight again by remarking that “our deepest self-knowledge unfolds as we are embraced by beauty.” And Keats takes it home by letting us know that “Beauty is truth, Truth is beauty- that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”
To sum all of this up, it strikes me that imagination, curiosity, attentiveness, and beauty are the great revealers of Truth. Let’s use them!