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What Is Truth?

The following article was written for the August 2020 edition of Roqueta, Menorca’s English-language magazine.

What is truth?

Although my background is in electronic engineering, in my previous career I migrated into marketing of telecommunications products, thus having to acquire skills in that discipline.  One very effective mantra that I learned is that someone’s perception is their reality.  It matters not how close the perception is to another person’s reality – or to truth.

We live in a world in which it is all too easy to reframe or restate information, even some form of truth, to create misinformation and what has become known as fake news, amongst other labels.  During the early weeks and months of the coronavirus crisis, some of this misinformation could have been not only misguided, but dangerous.  Like the virus itself, it spread rapidly – partly borne on a tide of misplaced good intentions and a desire to be helpful, in the face of a pandemic which left many feeling helpless and hopeless. 

Of course, we cannot always tell the truth, or at least we cannot always be completely certain that we tell the truth.  Very rarely is truth an absolute commodity.  

In the Bible itself, there is not an unequivocal version of the events of Jesus‘s life, ministry, death and resurrection.  There are four gospels, and they each tell a slightly different story.  Someone once used the analogy that it is similar to four people watching a traffic accident occur from four separate corners of a road intersection.  Each one of them will give a slightly different account because they see it from a different perspective.  So where is the truth? 

There may be occasions when truth is difficult or even dangerous.  Emily Dickinson in one of her poems wrote: 

 Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind — 

The poem suggests that in the final analysis, the truth is too much for us to absorb all at once.  

There may be times when it is judicious not only to ‘tell it slant,’ but actually to avoid telling it at all.  What about the circumstances when people have provided refuge for others whose lives livelihood is in danger?  In order to protect the one seeking refuge, it may be necessary to tell an untruth. 

The question, ‘What is truth?’ is actually a quote from the Bible.  When Jesus was hauled before Pontius Pilate, as part of his interrogation there was an exchange, a conversation, which culminated in Pilate asking that question.  There was no recorded answer.  Instead Pilate went outside to tell the crowd that Jesus was innocent.  The mob chose not to believe him.  It was not the first, nor the last time that crowd mentality shouted down the truth. 

Elsewhere in the Bible, Jesus told his followers, ‘You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.’  That statement is a double edged sword.  There are many people who do not want to be liberated from the comfortable framework of their own beliefs and priorities.  The truth can be uncomfortable.  

When I lived in California during the years of the second Bush administration, I found Americans who simply could not accept or embrace the idea that their government would lie to them.  Nearly 20 years later, we know perfectly well that the Bush administration did mislead the American populace – and in fact, that all governments are capable of lying to their citizens. 

Nevertheless, going back to my original marketing mantra, for many people their perception is their reality.  It cannot be altered by brute force, by facts, or by experts, because there are some things too painful to change.  As Paul Simon wrote in his song, The Boxer: ‘All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.’  Even memory cannot be trusted: ‘Memories may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.’  (Barbra Streisand, The Way We Were). 

I have had to learn this discipline: when I am confronted with a point of view that is different from my own, or a perception – someone else’s reality – I have to ask myself: Why do they see what they see?  From which point of view do they see it?  What might that teach me about my own perception, my own reality?  

What can help us to open our hearts and minds, to allow our perceptions to be altered?  I suspect that there is not a simple, a straightforward answer to that.  There are plenty of sources of information and fact-checking sites on the internet, that can help to counterbalance the tide of ill-researched opinion or erroneous propaganda.  Yet many people cannot be bothered to check something before posting it on FaceBook, or Twitter, or WhatsApp, especially if it serves to reinforce their beliefs and opinions.  Nevertheless, unless we are to stagnate in an echo chamber of our own narrow perceptions, we need to examine our readiness to evolve and grow, which may well mean accepting, in humility, that our own perceptions are not always (if ever!) the only reality.

Sometimes that most valuable people in our lives are those who hold up a mirror to us, so that we can see ourselves as others see us, and ask ourselves that question: What is truth?  

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion! 

Robert Burns, To A Louse

Something that I recall frequently from my own frame of reference reminds me constantly not to entrench myself within artificial boundaries.  Some years ago, shortly after we moved to California, my first wife, Dilys, who was British, was watching something on the television – I really don’t remember what – and I made a disparaging remark about it.  She said, quietly, “Just because it’s American doesn’t mean it has to be bad.”  I was suitably chastened. 

In that case, respect, born of love, is what caused me to see myself as another saw me, to examine my own prejudices and reassess a rather intransigent point of view.  Kate, as the current (American!) incumbent of the spousal position, has frequently given me cause to listen, learn and adjust my attitudes (and behaviour!). 

But we cannot just expect to rely upon our spouses or partners to keep us on the ‘straight and narrow.’  We have to be willing to take the responsibility upon ourselves to open our hearts and minds, to readjust our perceptions, to question our own version of reality, and to pursue a constant search for truth, and the freedom that it can bring.  

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