Telling a True Story Is Impossible
You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view. -Ben Kenobi
It has been heartbreaking, but maturing to grow to the realization that I cannot write my story from the god perspective. It used to seem like telling the truth would be easy: just don’t lie, be accurate, precise, and clear. As it turns out, each of these imperatives are mutually exclusive.
“Telling the truth” conflicts with being “accurate” when the moral of the story carries a higher truth than the accurate description of the events. For example, Job nor Noah nor Pinnochio have to be actual guys in order for their story to be importantly true.
And being “accurate” conflicts with – and is even the opposite of – being “precise”, when the precision reduces the utility or emotion. In fact, being precise is a common strategy to avoid the truth without lying, overcomplicating a matter and clouding the important overview.
And none of these are the same as being “clear”. For example,
The Truth About TVs
- It may be true to describe my TV as big, but that’s not very precise.
- It may be accurate to describe my TV as an appliance, but that’s misleading, and therefore not really true since most people don’t think of TVs when they think of appliances.
- It may be precise to describe my TV by its atomic components, but that is unhelpful on every other level.
But the clearest way to describe my TV is to lie; to be untrue, inaccurate, and imprecise: it’s a portal through which actors act out whatever story I demand, whenever I demand it. It’s a magic box of entertainment.
And I picked a boring thing like a TV on purpose because relationships and emotions are infinitely more complex. Clear, accurate, precise focus on all the details of any human interaction is literally insanely. It is chaotic debilitation in every case. So an extremely uncomfortable truth about truth is:
the truest description about anything depends on what you’ve already decided you want to believe about it.
The Motives Behind TVs
Upon visiting my house…
- If you want to believe I’m a bad father, the truth you value the most is that the kids watch that TV for multiple hours a day, but if you want to believe I’m a great family man, the truth you value the most is that all day long it plays a slideshow of our family days memories.
- If you want to believe I have an appropriate sized TV, the truth you value the most is that we are able to play Minecraft together as a family because it’s big enough to see 4 players at the same time, but if you want to believe my TV is glutinous overkill, the truth you value the most is that it is so big that we have to sit farther back from it to enjoy watching a movie.
- If you want to believe I’m haughty, the truth you value the most is that it’s ridiculously large, but if you want to believe I’m humble, the truth you value the most is that it was a gift to us from several of our friends.
And then something being “right” is a whole other matter. Each version of the word (“morally sound” or “correct”) has its own set of pitfalls too.
And yes, the nuance does matter
…a lot, quite frankly, despite the black-and-white thinkers view that I’m just making a simple subject over-complicated. To them “truth is truth” and they’re bored by nuance. They want to keep their neat little boxes and categories. They want to ignore the fact that all the little boxes are actually leaking into each other. For them, reality is less compelling than predictability.
They love to say, “I don’t want to hear it!” before they boil your story down to the part they care about. They love to say, “no, no, no – you’re missing the point!” but they unknowingly prove the importance of openness. They equate “the” point (as in “the only important point”) with their point. What they are really saying is, “You’re missing MY point, and I don’t care about YOUR point.”
Ohhhhh! So there are at least two conflicting ways to honestly look at the same topic, but apparently the only perspective you’ll authorize as “Truth” is the one that you feel strongly about. Got it! (But supposedly I’m the one trying to stifle Truth…?) But, in all fairness, oversimplifying a story to fit a preconceived narrative is the most common human reaction to complexity.
The clearest way to describe anything is usually through its use case.
A chair is most accurately, “A place to rest” for the weary, but it is most accurately, “a single-step ladder” for the mom hanging the birthday streamers, and it’s a prison for the child who must stay there to finish her broccoli before she can return to her video game. Any of these descriptions would be “untrue” to any of the other people, because the truth of a statement depends on what you wanted to do with it before you received it. When you need to drive a nail, everything you see actually is just hammers of different levels of effectiveness.
Those who are curious or who are looking to be entertained can hold truth with the optimal openness, and are less jarred by hearing equally valid, yet conflicting accounts or facts. But those who are looking to confirm or deny a previously held belief will likely never find need to admit they are wrong. Every story will do exactly what you ask it to.
In mass media studies, we also consider energy, emphasis, and focus.
Consider the Pew Research Center question, “Has the news media made too big a deal out of the [recent major news story] or not enough?” This terrible question will likely get the same response from opposing worldviews. Anti-[story] people will think the news should cover the “true” version of the story more, and the pro-[story] side will feel like the truth-suppressors and liars’ voice is being amplified too much. Both sides agree: the news should make a bigger deal out of the “true” version of the story.
Both closed-minded sides scream at the other: “I don’t want to hear it! You’re missing the point!” I’ve lived with that culture for half a lifetime. I will compassionately tolerate those people’s dissent. But if Truth is sincerely the aim, nuance is the path and open-minded empathy is the only vehicle.
Suffice it to say that reality looks different from different perspectives, even if everyone is “telling the truth.” That is why eyewitnesses are so unreliable. Unfortunately, the best any of us can be is the closest eyewitness of our own lives; an unreliable narrator of ourselves, to ourselves. Most likely, that person you’ve fought with didn’t say what you heard and they didn’t say it for the reasons you feared. What you think happened, didn’t. And most of what did happen, you didn’t see.
Or worse yet, you chose to forget. Because the more you leave out, the clearer the story gets. Forgetting, filtering, and focusing is largely how we make meaning of our lives. Your life and your choices are unknowably, infinitely complex. We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are. The best any of us can say about our memories is that they are based on a true story.
More Bad Questions
In study after study, homo sapiens show that they don’t really know what they think and that they know to be “true” (even about themselves) are just made up excuses to make themselves feel better about the multiple realities they are forced to live in. Take for example, the fact that most people find it difficult to answer the same exact survey about their beliefs the same way, twice in a row, if any significant time has passed. Take, for example, the question:
Is [current societal debate] a big problem or a small problem in your nation?
You’re not even required to take a side on this question, just rate it as significant or not. Seems easy, right? Current you and future you should have no problem lining up on this one. But the answer is almost completely dependent on how you were primed before encountering the question.
If the question is, for example, about the beheading of newborns, both answers are perfectly acceptable:
- There is practically no greater travesty on the planet. Beheading of newborns is a big problem in any nation where it exists!
- Almost no newborns are beheaded. If we want to reduce death and suffering in our nation, there are at least dozens of problems we should try to solve first: car accidents, mental health, the budget deficit, drug overdoses, and nearly any other problem. Beheading of newborns is a big problem for the newborn, but an infinitesimally small problem in the nation.
Depending on what you were thinking about before you were asked the question, you’ll disagree with your last answer.
To steel man any opposition, I will point out that this is not actually a shift in the respondent’s core attitude on the topic, but just in how they interpret the semantics. And fair enough. I agree. It’s the same person with the same core belief, but that person interacts with the world. How is the pollster supposed to interpret the data when the same population disagrees with their own responses? Are we, or are we not, a people committed to ending the beheading of newborns?
And how is a friend supposed to react to the person with seeming changing views? “You said you were against that!” “What? I never would say I was against that!”
What is the Truth? Who are these people if they are not dynamic beings with fluid bits of “Truth” they hold on to at different points? Not to belabor the point, one more example is a question like:
Is [person / leader / organization] having a positive or negative effect?
I might entirely disagree with them, but if they are so absurd that I feel they are exposing the problems of their side, or if they are pushing us all toward some Revolution I want, I could easily say I welcome their influence. Certainly, many people voted for Silvio Berlusconi not because they agreed with anything he stood for, but because they liked the message that was sent by electing such an outsider.
Pixels Make The Picture
If you really want the god perspective of my life or any story, start by knowing its shades of gray. The closer you zoom in on gray, the more distinctly you can see the razor sharp lines between the black and the white pixels. But both are true – it’s gray…and it’s black and white..and probably red, green, and blue as well. If you want to know the truth, zoom out and learn to see the gray. When you acquire a new fact or idea that conflicts with another, resist the urge to throw one of the two out. They are more likely different pieces to the same puzzle.
In 150 CE, Ptolemy proved the Truth that earth was stationery and the planets moved around it. But in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus proved that Ptolemy was an idiot because the Truth was, the universe moved around the sun. Over the next several hundred years, a host of astronomers from your junior high history books who you’ve long-since forgotten like Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Charles Messier, William Herschel, and others built on, and invalidated each other’s Truths about our place in the universe. It wasn’t until 1915 that Einstein proved with relativity, they were all Truly right at the same time. And surely, someone is scheduled to come along and strip the irony right out of the insult, “Okay, Einstein!”
Truth does matter.
This is not to say that all Truth is relative or that all Truth claims are equal or that Truth doesn’t matter. Einstein was neither lucky nor an idiot. What he contributed was real and important. Not every perspective is valid, and not every claim is true (my TV is not a ham sandwich), but some truths are the opposites of other truths. If you want to be able to collect the truest truths without accidentally molding it to your preconceived notions, work to master the art of holding two opposing truths at the same time without needing to rank one truth as higher than the other.
It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better
Of course, multiple truths means multiple realities. Even within myself, with just my one set of truths, I live many different lives simultaneously. Depending on the day, depending on my emotions, depending on my most recent meal (or lack thereof), depending on at least a million different factors, my kids are angels or demons, my wife is perfect or annoying, my dogs are friends or pests; even I am a winner or a loser. This is only a superficial overview of an infinite black hole of conflicting realities I vacillate between, with almost no attention paid to their diametric opposition. I consider each of them to be true when I am in them, and all of them to be true collectively, as I generally remember myself as a reasonable person with “a” worldview, “a” personality, and “a” good reason to have thought and acted the way I have.
The truth could hardly be further from reality. And the same is true for you. And for the rest of humanity. So we are stuck with 7.8 billion (and growing) different truths, each with potentially infinite – and constantly fluid – realities they create with their particular set of truths. Some of them overlap for some time, like a universe-sized screen saver of bouncing, morphing hoola hoops, creating and then disbanding innumerable Venn diagrams. We’re both Christians! …until I decide your definition isn’t the same as mine. Our favorite beer is Coors! …until I get sober. We both have kids! …until they move out. We’re neighbors! We drive the same car! We’re both alive! Change.
Even less frequently, because randomness is always less uniform than we expect, several hoola hoops will line up at the same time. Maybe just two, maybe millions or more temporarily concur and the world experiences a new book club, the KKK, a winery, the USSR, Apple computers, Scientology, America, a summer vacation, Protestantism, a marriage. Change.
Trying To Choose
For the moment, I still choose to believe that we still choose to believe; that we get what most of my favorite smart people discuss as “free will”. And although I think our motives are largely hidden from us, I think that we can, by will and desire, uncover some of our hidden motives and even suggest the course for our journey.
Like a monkey riding an elephant through the jungle, there is no telling that the rider is wiser than the vehicle (it is almost certainly the opposite at times), and there is no way for either of them to know how the terrain will force changes in their path, but if they can learn to respect and trust each other, both of them can at least have a partner in the journey, and perhaps even experience less suffering…if for no other reason than not having to be tied to an enemy.
So to whatever degree we might be able to alter our trajectory, the hoola hoops are not entirely random. Each one is up to something. In fact, it would seem each of them desperately wants to line up with another, while believing they have not changed a wit to do so. They will settle for a partial agreement, maybe 10 different Venns with 10 different hoops, but the larger the perceived alignment, the more energized they become. Tiny new hoola hoops are often the result.
I don’t know how to not be enraptured by this cosmic phenomenon. And the question of “But who is right?” seems like the least relevant thing possible. Do you not see what’s going on here!? Some of us are deeply captivated at the rural midnight sky and one of the campers says, “Do these pants make my butt look big?” Sorry. I’m not going to check for you, and I can’t currently relate to the impulse to care.
My “Right” Is The Real “Right”
It’s not that I think that I’m better than those black-and-white thinkers. (Of course, from this vantage point, I scarcely know what “better” means in that context.) I’m not even sure my pursuits are more important than theirs. After all, someone needs to protect the borders and make important decisions, right? I’m just more curious more than I am bent on knowing.
Actually, I am willing to take a stand there. When we’re making decisions about how to education children, for example, I would like my children to be guided to be open to being open. (But actually open, not just rebellious. Most “liberalism” is toxically conservative. Most religion is extreme humanism. Most “freedom” is just a different type of prison. Almost all revolutions just enthrone new dictators.) I would like for my kids to be trained in resisting the impulse to have “arrived”.
I do think this is a better way of living. So I can be moved to action in ways that free people to experiment in self-actualization where that does not interfere with others’ similar, often contradictory experiments.
Once again, just because there is no unknowable truth doesn’t mean there are no knowable un-truths. For example, it might work for you, living confident that the problems in your life are caused by ghosts born of a volcanic hydrogen bomb detonated by the Galactic Confederacy’s dictator Xenu. …but that is probably a knowable un-truth.
The certainty that Truth is unknowable does not invalidate the search for truth, it just humbles you when you’re sure you’ve arrived.
There is a brand of confidence that feels like peace, trust and openness.
Like sitting in a chair – I am quite confident it will hold my weight like almost all the other chairs in my world. However, if it fails and I fall through, it does not alter my view of reality. Because of the number of chairs in my life, it doesn’t even alter my belief in chairs. In fact, if my experience led me to believe all chairs would fail under my weight, I would likely just be more careful about where I sat. I might be curious about why I have believed in chairs so fully when they are so obviously unreliable. But curiosity would be the primary response.
Curiosity can lead to existential crises. Perhaps a deeply troubling look at my unnoticed weight gain would ensue. Maybe I would question my mental health and seek a diagnosis if I kept labeling things as chairs when those around me agreed that those objects were actually my pets. But the crisis is in finding congruence in the universe – an attempt to make things work – not an insistence that the universe is not acting as it must.
But there is also a brand of confidence that feels like pride and self-worth.
The black and white thinkers hold “fundamental” beliefs that they need to be rock solid, unchangeable in all situations. These fundamental beliefs function as prophets and filters. They tell the believer what to expect, fulfilling the deep human need to predict and control the future. They also tell the believer what they have experienced, filtering out those things which “can’t be possible” and redefining the new as explicable.
The curious thinkers may be equally hurt, surprised, angered, frustrated when their fundamental beliefs fail to perform. But these people have are more addicted to learning than they are to certainty. When they say, “Why would you do that?” it is not dripping with shame or accusation. When they say, “How could that be!?” they don’t actually mean, “That can’t be.” Their existence and value is not threatened by being wrong – even very, very wrong.
This applies to opinions as much as it does to facts.
It seems that everyone tries to self justify or to self-criticize, often pulling off the contortionist act of doing both wrong things at the same time:
“I may be a terrible person…but this wasn’t my fault!” or the equally self-contradictory response, “This was all my fault…but I’m really a good person!”
So now my interpersonal workout consists of fighting both urges, and instead trying to fully own what’s mine and none of what’s not, and staying open to being wrong about both. I’m not a good person who has done bad things. I’m not a bad person who has done good things. I’m exactly Jamin Coller. Jamin Coller has done good things and bad things. He is very imperfect and infinitely valuable.
A side note on truth and authors:
I learned while I was reading Matthew McConaughey‘s book that even the author…especially the author can get in the way of the message. If I read his book thinking of the author as the man in the goofy Lincoln car commercials, I experienced nothing but contempt for his blather. But if I read the same passages and imagined that he was some great apprentice to the Dalai Lama, I found a lot of truth in what he said…perhaps too much truth. I began to think that maybe I was giving the gurus too much credit out of respect for their résumé.
So, staying open to morons and disrespectful of gurus seems to be a decent correction to this type of bias in my mind. It is difficult to hear what you hear, and not what you expect to hear (as is true for the rest of the senses). So, whether or not you know me in real life, I would encourage you to experiment with reading this as if I was a fool (like my parents would claim), and as if I were a sage (like they would claim I believe I am), and then silence those irritating in inaccurate voices and just accept the ideas onto a blank canvas and see which parts are elegant enough to hang in the gallery of your mind, regardless of the artist’s credentials.