What’s the Truth?Posted: March 9, 2015
Life is just the stories we tell ourselves.
In last week’s post on uncertainty, I wrote about how my parents each had their own stories about the disappeared coffee table, and I quoted Lesley Hazleton on how Islam, among other religions, has historically spun stories of the unknown in ways that have led to horrific violence and hatred.
This week, I’m contemplating the concept of “truth”, because if you’re anything like me, at some point in your life, you’ve found yourself wondering something along the lines of: “WHAT the hell is this TRUTH nonsense that all these religions and philosophers and laymen alike are always talking about???”
I’m also choosing to gift you with one of my favorite episodes from my all-time favorite TV show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, which, in all its light-hearted, youthful glory, manages to make an intelligent commentary on storytelling, perception, and truth (aside: honestly, if you haven’t watched the entire Avatar series front to back yet, drop EVERYTHING you are doing right now, including this blog, and GO. WATCH. IT. Or a crucial part of your childhood will forever be lost. Also, spoiler coming up for the episode I linked.)
After hundreds of years of wars between the Gan Jin and Zhang tribes, sparked by their unshakeable belief in a convoluted story of injustice between two of their clansmen centuries before, Aang (the all-powerful Avatar and peacekeeper) manages to bring the tribes together and settle the peace. How? He invents an entirely new story that immediately causes both tribe leaders to suspend their centuries-old anger and judgment! Aang is believable because, despite the fact that Aang is a 12-year-old kid in the show, he’s supposed to have been alive 100 years before the start of the show, but was frozen in time (for reasons you’ll find out when you watch it). Instead of placing Jin Wei (of the Zhang) and Wei Jin (of the Gan Jin) on separate tribes, Aang “recalls” that they were actually brothers, and that they were playing a game that involved a ball (instead of the “sacred orb” that the Zhangs accuse the Gan Jins of stealing), and that no one was imprisoned for life, but rather, Wei Jin was put in the penalty box for 20 seconds during the game. At the end, after the leaders of the tribes have made up, Aang sheepishly confesses to his friends that he has no idea what actually happened, because he invented the entire story to resolve the conflict!
This tiny, 4-minute fragment entirely illustrates how the stories we choose to tell ourselves about our lives, people, and the things that happen to us, govern our actions. The story Aang chose to tell was great because it resulted in positive action for both tribes moving forward. However, it still makes me wonder, what was the truth? What’s the real story between the Zhangs and the Gan Jins?
I started to question this whole idea of “truth” during my senior year at Haverford because of a friend who had some very interesting explanations for her negative actions and behaviors at the end of the year. I knew she had been diagnosed with OCD in high school, but she’d told me it hadn’t followed her through college. At the end of the year, she started to slam drawers and doors in our suite and switch hallway lights on and off when the rest of us were talking in our rooms, in the hallway, or in the common room, and then denied it when we asked her what was up or if she was ok. Perhaps this is just my overactive mind always concerned with finding THE answer to whatever questions its ruminating, but I was bent on figuring out: What was reality? How could our versions of the truth be so polarized? How was it possibly ok in her mind to treat other people so poorly?
And the worst question of all: if I didn’t find the answer (or the truth) to these questions, could I possibly be living in my own delusions?
I think the difficulty with the concept of “truth” is that it can be used broadly or narrowly; practically or philosophically. To help you understand the concept of “truth”, here are the three main categories of truth that I use to conceptualize it:
1) The truth about any given, concrete situation
This, to me, is a more narrow, more practical definition of the truth. It’s narrow because I believe that there is a concrete answer to questions like “What actually happened to Hae Min Lee the night that she was killed?” (for all you Serial fans out there), or, was my ex-friend really suffering from a recurring onset of her OCD, which led to her denial about her incredibly odd behaviors? This type of truth exists out there somewhere, and it’s just a matter of someone with enough expertise and insight coming along to enlighten the rest of us to the answer.
2) Truth as moral values
This is broader and less concrete than the above definition of truth, but understandable nonetheless. Why, for example, should I pay my muni (SF bus system) fares if the drivers never actually check for a transfer? Why should I treat others with kindness and respect? Why does my co-teacher insist to our students, every day, that they make the right choices to follow the rules during games and demonstrate good sportsmanship?
I honestly believe that these universal morals exist for a reason, and reasons beyond just “if you punch someone in the face, they will punch you in the face back, and then you will be sad” (although that’s true too). Every action has a consequence, whether those consequences manifest immediately or not. I, for example, could be fined by the SF MTA if I’m caught without proof of payment. Or maybe my tendencies to try and cheat the system will carry over into some other part of my life where I’ll be screwed twice over to make up for my unpaid muni fares years before. Either way, I take it to be true that paying my muni fares is the right thing to do, so I keep doing it.
3) Truth as an “ultimate” reality
Now this is where things get SUPER broad, metaphysical, intangible, and especially debatable. This version of truth, for me, brings up questions like “Is what we perceive even what really is?” “Are there things that escape our limited human consciousness?” This kind of truth is what I always assumed the major religions to be referring to when all of their enlightened folk described “truth” and “enlightenment”, as if there is some ultimate consciousness that sees everything in our world (and beyond) as it really is, without the skewed, subjective perspective of a human mind. If you’re interested in the topic of truth as a question of reality and perception, check out Attack on Titan and this awesome WaitButWhy post on truth.
When I question the stories we tell ourselves about the world, I’m questioning all three categories of truth. When my suite mate was randomly slamming the doors and drawers in our suite at all hours of the day and then insisted that it was the wind from the open windows, I knew she had convinced herself that that was the truth. Was her OCD returning to cause her to have obsessive thoughts and rituals that involved door slamming (level 1)? Had she convinced herself that it was ok to blame us for her frustrations, and therefore treat us coldly (level 2)? Was any of this stuff all of us in the suite had perceived even real (level 3)?
I may never know, but I’ve written my own story about that situation in my head. So then the question becomes, if we create explanations about situations in our lives when we don’t know the truth, (and may never), how can we make sure we’re writing narratives that lead to positive actions?
This is my conclusion: always search for the “truth” in any given situation. Question things, recognize when and what you don’t know, and always revisit your beliefs and values to make sure they are as universally applicable as they can possibly be. And while you’re on your quest for the truth (which, by its very nature, is universally applicable, eternal, and unchanging), be like Aang. Choose a story that makes you the best version of yourself, and live by a narrative that brings positive energy and action to yourself and to those around you.
I figure, however much it bothers me that I don’t and may never know the “truth”, it can’t hurt to write my stories about life in a way that helps me keep moving forward through struggle and benefits the people around me. My hope is for this blog to help you write your story, too.