By Sheila Judge, MD
It seems too often truth has been stood on its head in our recent American culture. Truth has gotten stretched, twisted, and waved like a banner by all sides of a divided and intolerant discourse.
There is nothing new about the dance, though—only the lyrics are different. A push to free up and change is met by a pushback to maintain the status quo. Even the violence that ensues is not new, although it feels more chaotic in outbreak and character.
One factor that you would think would serve truth is the immediacy of news cycles. Yet there have been challenges to credibility there—perhaps a reaction to bringing too much to light, perhaps a reaction to information overload. Or perhaps too much truth.
We could argue all day about the philosophy of truth, its nature, or its illusion. So let’s agree to be talking here about common-sense evaluation of what happens around us or to us or in our world.
Everyday experience shows us that truth can be relative. A scientific breakthrough replaces an older discovery, previously held as the standard and now discarded. A more sophisticated and accurate (or maybe, jaundiced) look at our justice system tells us that interpretation of the law is based on many factors, sometimes leaving us to view treasured films of historic legal battles as fairy tales.
Recent attempts to converse with anyone on the opposite political spectrum, trying to find an elusive compromise or at least a way to talk, requires a lot more energy, fortitude, and patience. I’ve seen too many people give up and avoid dialogue altogether. I mean, it used to be fun to disagree openly about politics. Now, as everyone clings to their own split-off version of what is true, fear reigns as disagreement becomes a threatening commodity.
I’ve always thought of young children as inherently able to discern truth. You can lie to them, but they will know it, even if their greater desire to trust the adult takes over and they say nothing. Their natural “truth meter” has yet to be corrupted…although it starts there.
Why don’t we always tell the truth? (And I’m not talking about holding back a blunt but hurtful comment. That’s just being decent.)
There is an important interrelationship between truth and fear. A clever liar learns that the deception will be more effective if it plays on a deep fear. Lies are formed in the face of fear of reprisal, fear of hurting feelings, fear of discovery, fear of consequences or punishment, fear of ostracism, fear of betraying a trust, fear of ridicule.
Lies are the easy way out. Because another way fear and truth are connected is the great effort often required to tell the truth in the face of all the social, interpersonal, and internalized fears, just a few of which I’ve mentioned.
They say that the truth shall set you free—but for anyone in our culture up to now, that has been an impossible ideal. Those that tell a painful or unwelcome truth are usually slapped with a label: whistleblower, rat, stool pigeon, indiscreet, crazy. Or in the ultimate reaction of projected fear, a liar.
So fear and truth do a complicated dance, the modern tempo of which is accelerating so that the swirl of it confuscates the beholder. It is disheartening to experience. And so hard to avoid being pulled into its dizzying vortex.
How can we change the course of this descent?
Always telling the truth—no matter the cost—actually makes you a more honest person, one more able to discern when the truth is being twisted. Revealing an unhappy, unpleasant, or unwelcome truth, while initially a scary thing, can eventually be a cleansing and healing process, especially with strong support and the tincture of time. But there are no guarantees, and it is just as often a lonely road. There are so many ways people defend against what they are not prepared to hear. And too often it is those closest whose lack of support is devastating.
There is a type of reaction against factual truth I’ve often seen, that is so obvious it would be funny, if it wasn’t so devastatingly effective. That is when someone in authority, faced with evidence, simply and repeatedly says that the opposite is true. Insists on it, in fact. It makes the listener pause, and plants a moment of doubt in their initial awareness of what’s going on. And that insistence and doubt can, and does, topple the unwary.
What is freeing is the return to that childlike awareness of whether a thing is true—that ability to discern the heart of what is being said, and the heart and intentions of the speaker.
It requires us to address our own fears of social disapproval in its many forms. In order to decrease the illusions, our internal process includes acknowledging the little lies we have been telling ourselves, and the larger ways we deal with others, ways which while seeming to be self-protective at first, actually end up blocking genuine knowing.
Being honest with oneself is a difficult and humbling experience—but worth it. A culture of truth-telling creates the space for respect for all views, and brings us closer to a culture of peaceful living without rancor or violence.