core value truth

An Exploration of the Slippery Nature of Truth

I was asked to write a reflection to share at church this Sunday. The topic is on truth. I have such mixed feelings about truth. Your truth and mine are not the same, or maybe they are. Being truthful is always important to me and part of my striving for authenticity.

I belong to the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara and am learning what it means to be a UU. It’s a good fit for me, a place where questioning is welcome as are all faiths, genders and belief systems – even the agnostics and atheists find a welcoming comfortable home here.

This reflection on truth is about my experience of truth and why we tend to struggle with telling the truth. What is your experience of truth?

The essay is a bit long for a blog post but I wanted to share it here because I believe we all struggle with telling the truth. Read on to find out why we struggle.

An Exploration of Truth

Truth is a slippery topic: like my 4-month old kitten, it doesn’t want to be held onto for long or tied down. Yet sometimes, when the timing is right, truth, like the kitten, sits quietly on my lap for long restful moments. The nature of truth is an energetic state of being that can lift our spirits or send us into fits of terror.

In a fantasy fiction novel I was reading, the Game of Thrones, the author describes one of the characters: “Ned was clad in a white linen doublet with the direwolf of Stark on the breast; his black wool cloak was fastened at the collar by his silver hand of office. Black and white and grey, all the shades of truth.” This character is an honorable man that doesn’t love serving the king at court; all the intricate politics and plotting confound him. He doesn’t know whom to trust, he only knows that he believes in finding the truth.  Lord Eddard Stark embraced all three of aspects of truth: telling, finding and being truth. In the end, he loses his life trying to hold onto the truth.

Was his truth the right one? That’s what gets me about truth every time: it’s slippery. My truth is not necessarily your truth. My white is your black. Gravity is an undeniable truth, faith is not, mystery is not, how are we to decide and hold onto the slippery nature of truth?

A few years ago, my son who was about 10 at the time, handed me a piece of paper from school, very deliberately handing it to me with one side up. My motherly intuition told me something was up. It was a study guide for a test the next day and he needed my help studying. I was sitting at the kitchen table. It had been a rough day, I had to have my wonderful 14 year old dog put to sleep and had been crying most of the day. I flipped the paper over to find that he had forged my signature on the other side. I share this story, not to embarrass my son but to illustrate a point. He was stuck between the proverbial rock and the hard place: get in trouble at school because he forgot to get the piece of paper signed or get in trouble with me because he had attempted to forge my signature. As you can imagine, what followed was not fun for either of us. I burst into tears, not the reaction he expected. He also burst into tears and it took a while to repair the trust and damage on both sides.

We teach our kids how important it is to tell the truth, to be honest at all costs, to come clean when they make mistakes and do something wrong. Yet it’s difficult. Kids don’t want to get in trouble, they hope to avoid consequences; it’s not fun to get in trouble. Why would a child risk mom or dad’s wrath by coming clean if they think they can get away with it? Most kids are not intentionally doing wrong or making mistakes. Life happens.

Why we fear the truth

Where I think we fail truth and where we fail in our relationships with others is in our fear of consequences and our assumptions around what will happen when we tell the truth. It takes courage to share the truth – sometimes it takes courage to face a truth we need to tell ourselves and accept responsibility for the state we find ourselves in. Telling the truth means being vulnerable, opening to the potential for hurt, pain, or rejection. We aren’t taught how to navigate the slippery slope of vulnerability that goes hand in hand with truth. I understand my son’s fear of telling me what happened; it was certainly a great teachable moment. He had to make it right, his consequence was to tell the teacher what he had done and write her a letter of apology.

We have all faced instances in our relationships with our children, loved ones, or employers where we had to share a truth. Or perhaps we carry the guilt of truths never shared. Our dread of the sharing is often more distressing than the actual telling itself. Yet, we are faced with telling the truth every day in a million small ways:

“What would you like for lunch today?”

“I don’t care, whatever you want.”

“How about Mexcian?”

“No, not Mexican and not Italian either.”

“A salad?”

“No, pick something else…”

Does this conversation sound familiar? In reality, you do know what you want or at least what you don’t want but you are unwilling to speak up and ask for what you want. Why is it so hard to tell these small truths?

Or my personal favorite, “Do these pants make me look fat?” Who really wants to hear the truth in that moment? If I ask my husband this, he can’t win. I don’t want to hear the truth. How unfair to put him into that situation. But how often do we do that to ourselves and to others, ask them questions that we really don’t want the honest answer to?

Yet when we practice living our truth, telling the truth and facing the truth, it can cause a vibrant energetic shift in our state of being. It makes us feel good about ourselves and about others.

So how do we find the truth? This is even more slippery! I could get all scientific and philosophical at this point and debate the absolute nature of scientific investigations, the truth of mathematical equations, etc. etc. But for me, truth is so much more personal than science. When I talk about finding the truth, I am more interested in finding the truth within and seeing how facing that truth changes me.

I sold advertising and helped people with their marketing and copywriting for over a decade. It can be hard to find the truth in sales and marketing. As I am working on this talk, an email comes in with the subject line “Get high school skinny.” That’s a big marketing fish to dangle before my eyes, it’s bright and shiny and appealing to anyone trying to lose weight. But is it the truth? Is it my truth? Do I want to be high school skinny? In my case, I wasn’t skinny in high school so this truth is empty though attractive.

In this poem, titled simply “Truth,” by Gwendolyn Brooks, I love how she grapples with the truth’s slippery nature.

And if sun comes

How shall we greet him?

Shall we not dread him,

Shall we not fear him

After so lengthy a

Session with shade?

 

Though we have wept for him,

Though we have prayed

All through the night-years—

What if we wake one shimmering morning to

Hear the fierce hammering

Of his firm knuckles

Hard on the door?

 

Shall we not shudder?—

Shall we not flee

Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter

Of the familiar

Propitious haze?

 

Sweet is it, sweet is it

To sleep in the coolness

Of snug unawareness.

 

The dark hangs heavily

Over the eyes.

 

Like Lord Eddard Stark in the Game of Thrones, Gwendolyn is living in shades of grey. We see so clearly here the fear of the light, truth. What I have learned on my journey of self-discovery is that truth matters: telling the truth, discovering the truth, being truth are for me at the root of living a meaningful and authentic life. Every misstep, like the forging of a signature in grade school, is an opportunity to stand up for truth and be open to the possibilities it brings.