Condemned and Free: Suspending Hostilities Directed at Truth
Truth is currently under siege. Nothing is more debilitating and devastating to a people than the pursuit of the best version of the truth experiencing a profound desolation. When a commitment to pursue the truth is sacrificed, we live with no North Star. We wander aimlessly or grab onto the loudest and most available voice. We don’t know how to decide what or who to trust. We become strangers to what truly matters.
Rollo May, the existential psychologist, reminds us that we are condemned to an approximation of the truth. That doesn’t mean that there is no truth. Rather, it suggests that the most viable option is to remain pilgrims devoted to the quest of the best version of the truth. We all know the emotional sense of what May calls “condemned”. It can happen in a conversation over politics, religion, or simply sharing diverse views about what truly matters in our lived experience. The yearning is for something larger than simply my view, a longing for something conclusive, something that can bring ease to the quaking in my chest.
History has provided numerous examples of distorted responses to being condemned to an approximation of the truth, desperate maneuvers to quell the quaking. The more popular of these distortions are nihilism and narcissism. Ken Wilbur points out, “Nihilism and narcissism bring evolution to a traffic-jam halt.”
Nihilism is fundamentally the claim that there is no truth. When someone holding authority takes a nihilistic posture, the door is wide open for narcissism to terminate any search for truth. The narcissistic rhetoric simply declares, “I said it is so and therefore it is so.” Of course, the danger is that the more socio-political status held by the narcissist, the more influential the declaration can be.
Several important questions include: What does it take to remain in pursuit of the truth while being condemned to some approximation? How can we make peace with ambiguity and uncertainty? How can we free ourselves from a desperate attachment to be right? Each of us needs to take the time to respond to these questions. My response is simply my response and certainly not the only way to negotiate the question. My hunch is that pursuing the best version of the truth while being condemned to some approximation of it will call us to an ongoing inventory of a capacity for humility, courage, authenticity and generosity.
Let’s look at these four qualities that go a long way to interrupt a siege upon truth and strengthen a capacity to live with ambiguity and uncertainty.
One origin of the word humility is “humus or earth”. In what ways can we say that humility happens close to the earth or the ground? One way might be carrying our gaze downward toward the ground, toward that which is directly in front of us. It doesn’t denote seeing oneself as some kind of low life. It doesn’t mean that such a focus completely rejects holding a large vision. Large visions are inspired by dreaming of some future manifestation, while the downward gaze keeps us here, now, in the present.
Our bodies are composed of earthly material. They remain both resilient and fragile, destined to die and decompose. It is extremely tempting to live outside our bodies. James Joyce describes his character Mr. Duffy, “Mr. Duffy lives a short distance from his body”.
What is a life lived a short distance from our bodies? It may be about striving, expecting, ruminating, analyzing and waiting for life to deliver some momentous occasion dispelling any doubt about the meaning of our lives. Living in the body denotes acceptance of our creatureliness – in need of food, clothing and shelter, susceptible to injury and pain, vulnerable to disease and climate conditions, having to come to terms with fear, and knowing each day brings us closer to dying. Humility does not allow your evolution to eclipse your creatureliness.
My client by the name of William, a 48-year-old consultant, tells of an evening where he was in conversation with a friend who was offering some criticism of his writing. The friend was critical of a certain quote he employed from a reputable author, pointing out that such a reference should only be used if the writer is well acquainted with the author’s entire treatise. The feedback made no sense to William since quotes typically are used to bring credibility to some point needing to be stressed. Writers simply are not thoroughly familiar with an author’s entire vision pertaining to some topic.
I asked William, “How did you handle it?”
“Well, I had no idea what to say that would support my use of the quote without insulting my friend,” he pointed out.
“Yes, I appreciate the predicament,” I added.
“So, I went with the only thing I had. I told her that my stomach was feeling very tight. As I remained focused on the tightness, I realized that I was feeling vulnerable, so I shared that also.”
“How did you friend respond to your disclosure?”
“She pointed out that she was simply offering her feedback to the writing and how dedicated she was to understanding the wealth of knowledge held by that particular author.”
“I pointed out that it would be helpful if she could become an ally by offering two or three suggestions that she believed would strengthen the writing. She agreed and a dense tension lingered in the air.”
“My wife and I left shortly after that. My wife turned to me in the car and said, ‘I think Louise wanted you to know that she knows much more than you about that particular author.’ I agreed and said that I felt sad.”
I reminded William how much his humility allowed him to be informed in a difficult moment by paying attention only to his stomach. I stressed that he got clear about what he wanted from his friend and likely understood what took her astray in her feedback.
Humility does not mean we have to be devoted to virtuous living. It simply means being willing to be ourselves. But, there’s the hitch, summoning enough honesty about acknowledging who we are, our strengths and the weaknesses. It also means getting honest about life, a short journey likely without magnificent accomplishments. Hopefully, it is a life characterized by some measure of healing, learning, and offerings of compassion. Let’s look at ways that humility can free us in the midst of being condemned to some approximation of the truth.
• Humility is a prerequisite for all significant learning. It is the doorway to accepting ignorance and feelings of being lost and confused as exemplified in the story of William.
• Humility does not protest being condemned to an approximation of the truth.
• Humility is willing to serve some sound version of the truth by working, studying and collaborating.
The most common way we understand authenticity is as a measure of how one presents to the world. When we say that he or she is authentic, we typically mean that when they speak or act, we hear or see an expression of the person’s own feelings, desires and beliefs. We believe we are encountering something more unique than an exhibition of social influences. Of course, there is a measure of trustworthiness to this more unique expression since we are not left wondering what lies beneath a veil of pretense.
Authenticity is not something that begins in the outer world, but rather in the interior world. It may be an exaggeration to suggest we can generate verbal declarations that are purely singular and unrivaled. A commitment to being authentic is an ongoing process. It means getting honest with ourselves, which is not a popular endeavor. It calls for a willingness to track the roles of rationalization, repression and denial.
When we rationalize, we justify or explain what we said or did in order to mitigate accountability. Attempting to dodge accountability naturally happens when feelings of shame accompany being accountable. In order to get straight with ourselves we may need to be mindful of shame and allow ourselves to feel it. Feeling the shame is a deeply authentic experience and often is the cornerstone of living authentically.
When we get stuck rationalizing as a way of avoiding being accountable, it’s time to make peace with shame. Rationalizing driven by denied shame moves us into a web of distraction aimed at numbing the bite of shame.
- When rationalizing is mitigated, curiosity and wonder are strengthened.
- De-shaming lessens distraction and avails us to a trustworthy path to ferreting out the best version of the truth.
- De-shaming creates more ease in being authentically positioned, knowing and speaking what truly matters to us.
- As rationalizing is toned down, we can get closer to our biases. An old mentor of mine started any important statement with “My bias is…”. I always felt that in his presence, there was room for my best version of the truth.
Repression is a common way to stifle pain and suffering deemed too much to handle. These feelings become overwhelming due to the belief that if we feel them and speak them, we will be alone and vulnerable. Contemporary neuroscience tells us that these emotions do not go away, they continue to subconsciously influence our thinking and behavior. I sometimes refer to repressed feelings as frozen tears. This tundra of emotion can generate a great deal of power over our beliefs and choices.
For example, if a parent was a bully, then a child’s fear, hurt and anger can easily become frozen. As an adult, such a child can find him or herself merging with and in support of a bully, or having strong hostile feelings toward a bully. Attempting to find the most sustainable way to relate to the adult bully will be seriously strained by old, primitive emotions. The best version of what is actually happening and the ability to respond effectively get significantly compromised.
Denial can be considered the most powerful impediment to getting honest with ourselves. It is only too easy to identify some personal character trait as unacceptable; and without hesitation, that trait slips into the unconscious, in hope of being forgotten. We can have no problem denying what we said or did in order to present in some decent fashion. Given enough practice, denial can feel so right that lying becomes a way of life. At that point, we have become deeply estranged from ourselves. We don’t know our own values or what we actually believe.
We are all living with some level of denial, some of which is even helpful. If we paused each time before driving to the grocery store and reminded ourselves of the automobile statistics regarding accidents, our shopping might be seriously curtailed. The key is not to totally eliminate denial, but rather to become mindful of where denial divisively separates us from who we truly are. That level of separation hampers which beliefs and ideas to trust, making it extremely difficult to steer a course in the direction of the best version of the truth.
Origins of the word courage can be found in both the Latin and the French for the word “heart”. We can say that we are acting courageously when our hearts are touched and moved to moving beyond the ever-presence of fear, to say or do something. These utterances or actions reflect the voice of our hearts.
It calls for courage to sustain an ongoing pursuit of the best version of the truth. Stuart Firestein, a notable neuroscientist, suggests, “Ignorance follows knowledge, not the other way around.” Firestein is saying that knowledge or the best version of the truth asks us to courageously acknowledge what we don’t know. It is the not knowing or ignorance that can yield enough curiosity to allow for continued inquiry.
There are certainly practical matters that afford us the opportunity to conveniently suspend doubt. How much baking powder to include in the mix for the banana bread or the best route from my home to Hartford can be lived as comfortable conclusions. However, when it comes to more serious matters like the nature of freedom, justice or love, or how to address diverse views without promoting divisiveness, it will call for “ignorance following knowledge”.
Most of us have received some measure of shame for our ignorance from family, friends, colleagues or from our educational experiences. Hence, it will take courage to adhere to the wisdom of Firestein’s recommendation to allow ignorance to follow knowledge. There is an immense seduction to allow the knowledge we possess to vouch for our being knowledgeable, reasonable and therefore a worthwhile human being. Living an approximation of the truth calls for being touched, moved and guided by ignorance and curiosity into further inquiry.
Generosity is typically described as a magnanimous offering of a concrete gift. It can be helpful to see it simply as a larger offering of anything deemed valuable, such as support, kindness and acceptance.
We can be generously spacious when attempting to avoid the narcissistic trap when faced with how to cope with an approximation of the truth. Spaciousness means making more room for the thoughts and feelings of others. Such spaciousness is reinforced when we are willing to suspend an attachment to being right. This can be especially challenging when hearing significantly different views.
A conversation involving diverse perspectives can stimulate feeling insecure. Have I been believing something lacking in credibility? What about the choices I’ve made as a result of my beliefs? The ego can move quickly toward gathering its intellectual arsenal in order to subdue the uprising created by some diverse view. A number of years ago I experienced a true test of my spaciousness.
At the time I was an intern in a Co-Counseling class whose curriculum consisted of a set of skills aimed at strengthening emotional resiliency. The teacher informed me that she would be away during our next class and asked if I might feel comfortable enough to teach the class in her absence. I assured her that I did. She went on to tell me that there would be a student from Boston visiting.
When the day came, I welcomed the woman upon her arrival and encouraged her to let me know what I might do to support her integration into the class. The evening was unfolding smoothly with folks appearing to feel relaxed about the absence of the teacher. Following the break, the visitor asked if she could say something. I invited her to speak as she prefaced her remarks by saying, “I want to say that just before the break, you (referring to me) said something that deeply touched me and so profound, that it will definitely change my life.” Well, my ego was well-perched, more than ready to hear her recount my astute offering. She then articulated what sounded like the exact opposite of what I had said. I paused and gently asked if she would mind repeating her cherished take-away. Glad to do so, she lifted her chin and brought more inflection to every word. Yes, it was confirmed. She had grabbed the very opposite of what I said.
The beat of my heart quickened, my breath became shallow, and my hands were clinched. I knew that my desire to physically shake her would not generate any positive results. With my need to set her straight leaping from my chest to my throat, I took two awkward gulps of saliva, impeding my urgent desire to offer her proper guidance. I had certainly been in the presence of ideas varying from my own, but never anything like this. I recovered a deeper breath, softened my gaze, let go of my desire to throw her out of the class and said, “You’re certainly welcome and I’m glad you were able to join us this evening.”
I was getting an immense lesson in generosity and how challenging it was for me to find some measure of spaciousness in the moment. My investment in being right was strongly asking for both review and mitigation.
Being generous with self-love is an excellent way to prepare for living with an approximation of the truth. I often hear people say, “How will I know a genuine experience of self-love? I never feel for myself the love I might feel for a lover, spouse or even one of my children.”
There are two significant ways to know that self-love is happening in a generous manner. The first is committing to forgive yourself when you know that you violated one of your own values. An act of deception or some insensitivity may be incompatible with what you truly value. I’m not suggesting that you simply exercise a cavalier attitude and move on. Rather, genuine self-forgiveness calls for an understanding of the behavior in question, as well as acknowledging what happened to some offended party. It also may be important to make an amends to someone who may have been injured, which involves an apology, along with a commitment not to reproduce the grievous behavior. In some cases, self-forgiveness may involve some form of restitution in order to address a loss experienced by the person harmed.
The second expression of generous self-love is to hold compassion for our struggles, suffering and mistakes. The light of self-love shimmers when we allow these three conditions to simply reflect our humanity as we fumble toward enlightenment. To be generous with self-love can allow our imperfection and some approximation of the truth to live together harmoniously. Without self- love allowing for acceptance of our shortcomings, the ego easily compensates by deluding itself into proclamations of alleged certainty.
James Hollis cautions us about the seduction of claiming to be certain when condemned to an approximation of the truth. “Wheresoever there is ‘certainty’, there is either ignorance, delusion, willful stupidity or service to complexes.” Complexes can be seen as the web of influence our early wounding has upon our thinking, feeling and acting. Since having perfect parents is not an option, we are all susceptible to being wounded and living the inevitable distortions generated by these wounds. Our emancipation from these distortions is a life-long endeavor. It calls for us to remain apprentices to deepening a capacity for humility, authenticity, courage and generosity. Only then can we be free to live an approximation of the truth.