Dear Tristan: Seek the Truth

Dear Tristan,

In yesterday’s letter I wrote about effective communication. I’ve spent much of my life trying to learn how to be a better communicator, and I have learned one thing above all else. There is no substitute for truth.

In my career as a communicator, I have learned this from personal experience. I have learned that it is possible to create a very effective communication that is very persuasive and plays to the sensiblities – hits all the “right notes” – of your particular audience. It’s possible to dress up failure to look like success . . . to dress up inefficiency and waste to look like necessity. It’s possible to convince others, if you are persuasive enough, that up is down and black is white.

However . . .

I’ve learned that it’s much more effective when what you’re trying to communicate happens to actually be true.

We humans are extraordinarily adept at lying to ourselves. In fact, our brains are built to help us do just that. Take a moment and try an experiment. Take a sheet of paper and draw two small shapes on it, about three inches apart, a square on the left and a circle on the right.

Now hold the paper at arms length, close your left eye, and focus on the square. Keeping your eyes focused on the square, bring the paper slowly closer to you.

Eventually, you will see the circle disappear.

That’s your brain lying to you . . . as the circle passes in front of the “blind spot” where your optic nerve connects to the back of your eye, your brain sees the rest of the paper, and tells your eye that what you see on the rest of the paper (that is, nothing but paper) is what you should see in that spot as well.

Your brain is a natural pattern-recognition machine, so when it recognizes an empty spot in a pattern, it fills in what it thinks should be there, whether it actually is there or not.

Because our brains function by recognizing patterns, we do the same thing our whole lives, usually without realizing it. Your mind sees “blank paper” and assumes it knows what should be there, when it is not. Similarly, your mind may look at a person and see “Catholic” or “Muslim” or “Hindu” or “Democrat” or “Republican” or “Conservative” or “Liberal” or “Rich” or “Poor” or “Black” or “Hispanic” or “Asian” or “Middle Eastern” or “Man” or “Woman” or any one of an infinite number of labels, and may think it knows what to fill into the blank spaces of what you don’t know about that person, based on what you do know. But categories are not truth.

You’ve read a lot of letters from me and your mom so far . . . letters in which we try to share our beliefs, opinions, hopes, dreams, philosophies and worldviews. But beliefs are not truth.

You will hear me, or your mom, or others, mention something that is going on in the life of another person, and what it might or might not mean for that person. But perceptions are not truth.

You will hear me, and others express an opinion about politics, or current events, or some other thing you might read about in the news. But opinions are not truth.

You will, as you grow up, hear lots of passionate discussions about what is or is not true. People will use a lot of big words and try to convince you that they are right, or that someone else is wrong. But passion is not truth.

You will hear me and others read to you from the Bible and tell you what we think this or that passage means, and how it might apply to your life. But interpretations are not truth.

I and others will teach you things . . . things about history, science . . . things about how the world works, and how it has worked in the past. But information is not truth.

You might, as I have done, spend a great deal of time searching your own soul and determining for yourself what, and how, you think, feel and believe. But introspection is not truth.

You will probably hear me, and others, say some of the same things over, and over, and over. Hearing something multiple times, and perhaps, from multiple people, can make it more persuasive. But repetition is not truth.

All of these things are tools that can help you arrive at truth, or conversely, tools you can use to lie to yourself. So I caution you against using any of these to attempt to make a determination that you have discovered the truth.

I want to tell you something dangerous now. I want to tell you this:

Anytime that anyone comes to you and tells you that they know the truth . . . about anything . . . they are lying to you. They may be lying to themselves as well, but they are certainly lying to you.

None of us . . . not a single one . . . knows the truth. If we are very diligent, or sometimes, very lucky, we might catch a glimpse of a piece of the truth in some small area of life. But because we are all human, we are all limited in our perspective. We are bound inside space and time, and therefore are only capable of seeing a very small piece of the truth at any given time.

You can look up at the full moon and say “the moon is round,” and that is a true statement. But it is not the truth about the moon. It is only one small fact about the moon. This is the case with anything you observe, anything you believe or think you know. The human mind is not capable of fully comprehending the truth . . . it’s too good at seeing what we want to see – no more, no less. So where we think we have “the truth” all we ever really have is our interpretation of what we are observing. As Wayne Jacobsen, a philosopher, an author and a friend of mine, likes to say, “The most dangerous person in the world is one who doesn’t realize he’s interpreting. When we mistake opinions and perceptions as truth, we are able to justify the use of a variety of coercive and judgmental behaviors in acting according to that supposed “truth,” and forcing others to do likewise. People have been justifying such violence and judgment to support their interpretations of “the truth,” for the entirety of human history.

But when you think about it, if what you believe in any given area really is true . . . why do you need to back it up with violence toward another or judgment of another? If a thing is true, it is true. And while you might desire to persuade someone else of that truth, there is a world of difference between speaking the truth under duress, and believing the truth. Even if you could be absolutely, 100% certain that you knew the unvarnished, unfiltered truth in a given area (you can’t), there is never a good reason to coerce someone to speak a truth they do not actually believe.

That’s not to mention the fact that a relationship with someone you have persuaded of a particular bit of truth is nourished by that persuasion, while a relationship with someone you have judged for their lack of truth is damaged by that judgment. So when you’re beating someone over the head with what you think is true, what you’re really doing is touting your own superiority over them . . . placing yourself above them . . . saying to them “my beliefs, perspectives and interpretations are more important than you are as a person.”

“But dad,” you’re probably thinking by now, “you said at the start of this letter that there’s no substitute for truth . . . and now you’re telling me it’s all but impossible to obtain! What’s the point of all this then?”

The point is this: While you can never hope to grasp the entirety of the truth, it is possible through the effective use of all the tools I mentioned above: beliefs, perceptions, information, introspection and all the rest, to broaden your perspective in order to glimpse just a bit more of it. Think of it as sitting in a dark room trying to make out something of the furniture around the room. Imagine that you have just the very faintest of lights . . . enough to catch a shadowed glimpse of the outline of a single table. Each time you employ these tools, you brighten the light ever so slightly. Given your limited human ability to see, there is no way to know the truth about the room . . . to know every air molecule, every speck of dust, every microscopic germ that wafts through the room. But if you turn up the light, you can certainly grasp a bigger portion of the picture than when you were sitting in almost complete darkness.

I said earlier that what I was telling you was dangerous. Here’s why: This search for truth can be an incredibly frustrating process, and like I said at the start of this letter, we’re much better at lying to ourselves than we are at seeking the truth. There are certain segments of our world who are utterly convinced that, rather than interpreting truth, they have discovered it outright, and are obligated to come down as hard as they can on those who disagree with them in order to save them from “error.” There is even an entire segment of our culture that has given up entirely on even the search for the smallest bit of truth, and has comforted itself for its failure by saying “there is no truth” (except, of course, for their self-contradictory belief that the statement “there is no truth” is itself true).

But the only logical extreme of that argument is nihilism . . . for if nothing is true, than nothing is at all! The belief that my perception is all that exists, leads to the logical conclusion that my perception is all that matters . . . which can be used from there to justify all of the exact same abuses as the ones engaged in by someone who believes he or she has stumbled upon absolute truth and must impose it upon you by force.

Some of us, though, believe that truth is indeed out there . . . and realize that we cannot grasp it absolutely, but still aspire to grasp as much of it as we are able.

There was a time in my early 20’s when I went through a lengthy period of deep depression, as I began to discover that much of what I thought I knew to be true turned out to be built on several layers of lies – many of them lies I’d been telling myself, many of them for several years. I doubted my faith, the knowledge I’d gained through four years of college and two years of graduate school, my abilities, even my sanity at times. Two things got me through that time. One was a series of letters and conversations I had with a few very close friends, particularly your mom (who was a very good friend at the time). The other was this quote by French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil:

“A man whose mind feels that it is captive would prefer to blind himself to the fact. But if he hates falsehood, he will not do so; and in that case he will have to suffer a lot. He will beat his head against the wall until he faints. He will come to again and look with terror at the wall, until one day he begins afresh to beat his head against it; and once again he will faint. And so on endlessly and without hope.

One day he will wake up on the other side of the wall.”

Sometimes it seems as though the only thing on the other side of that wall is another wall . . . but as each wall crumbles I feel as though I know a little bit more about truth . . . and a little bit more about the ultimate Truth – which is, I believe, the same God who invites us daily into relationship with Him.

Many of the parents I know, both from my own parents’ generation and from mine, believe that pointing their children toward God is the most important thing they will do as parents. The problem is that, far too often, when the foundation of that relationship is questioned later in the child’s life, their children realize that they only believe as they do because it’s what they have always been taught. When they are beginning to discover who they are for themselves . . . when they are calling into question some of what they have been taught, and deciding for themselves what they believe . . . too often the only basis they have for that relationship is “this is what I’ve been told.”

Often, it’s not enough.

Instead, what believe is more important is to instill in you a love for truth. That way, you can search out for yourself what is true. And I believe that when you do that, you will discover that a relationship with God is the truest thing there is.

When the only basis for someone’s belief is a lifetime of habit, the basis of the relationship is fear . . . fear of change, fear of the unknown. Fear of “if not this, then what?”

But Truth, like I said earlier, can stand on its own. I believe if I teach you the little I’ve discovered about what a relationship with God looks like, and instill in you a love for truth, you will not only come to cherish that relationship as much as I do, but the truth that I’m able to teach you will not satisfy you, and you’ll be out there relentlessly seeking to discover for yourself things that are even more true.

That, at least, is my hope. I can’t tell you The Truth . . . all I can do is show you what I think I’ve been able to grasp about it. I dearly, desperately hope that taste is enough for truth to become a driving force in your life, as it has become in mine. I hope you come to love the truth, even when you can’t see it. I hope you come to be utterly dissatisfied with anything less.


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