Testing the True   Leave a comment

real_fakeA lot of talk these days about truth or reality and fakeness, almost as if our era was the only one ever so burdened, so challenged, so troubled by discerning the difference. So I cheer when I find a key to help me along the way, one I can hold up to the light and turn in my hands and consider, one I can offer to you and see whether it serves your need, too.

Es ist alles wahr wodurch du besser wirst, runs a German proverb Thoreau quotes in his journal entry for October, 1837 — “Everything is true through which we become better.”

I love this as a test for truth. No abstraction here, but rather a laboratory prompt, a calibration on our internal alethiometers, to use the example of Philip Pullman’s delicate device for measuring truth.

alethiometerIn the first volume of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, Pullman describes the alethiometer like this:

It was very like a clock, or a compass, for there were hands pointing to places around the dial, but instead of the hours or the points of the compass there were several little pictures, each of them painted with the finest and slenderest sable brush (Northern Lights, 1995).

(Do you have your own alethiometer already? You do? Is it in good working order? Or are you looking for one?)

And that in turn should tell me something. As much as it is anything else, truth is an image, a whole set of images, that I carry around. From childhood onward, from experience, from stories, movies and the examples of others, from my culture and the era I was born and grew up in, I gather up and walk with a museum of images. Does what I see and experience right now match those pictures? If not, can it be true? How can it be true?

Everything is true through which we become better. Should I walk around asking, “Have you become better yet?” Well, no: unless I start first with myself. You know this is my principal strategy for avoiding insufferable arrogance, spiritual myopia and self-righteousness. Turn the edge on myself first, before urging the blade on others. A better question is “How did you do it? And can I generalize a principle, extract a technique from your answer, so that I can pull it off, too?”

What am I doing, what have I done, and has it helped? Have I become better? If so, can I do more of it? How Druidic! Rather than an eternal and external standard to which I must somehow conform but which is native, apparently, to nobody, instead I practice one dependent on my life and my experience. Yet we can recognize a shared quality in both our experiences, even though they’re different. What can that tell us? What are we perceiving? Part of an answer seems to lie in the relationship between honoring my own experience even as I honor another’s.

To give a specific example, echinacea consistently upsets my system, but my wife finds it a wonderful aid. My truth doesn’t trump hers, but neither does hers negate mine. One principle does for both: if it helps, if through it I become better, it’s true for me. As with freedom, so with truth: yours ends where mine begins, and vice versa. Force either on me and they cease being what they are, but become their own opposites. (We still endlessly practice this negative magic on ourselves and each other.)

I do ritual alone, or with others, and stand together in a circle with the Visible and the Invisible to welcome the sacred. My wife and I work at our marriage, and it has its good and better years, like anything planted and cultivated, watered and weeded. I fell out of touch with a college friend, and we’ve drifted apart. I remember others regularly, and our relationship still holds true.

I find truth in the quality of such relationships. Improving a relationship is one way I become better.

Oh, uniformity or conformity has its place. Build a house and you want dimensions as close as you can measure and cut them. We also speak of angles, materials and directions as true. True north. We’re dismayed, or gratified, when potentials and promises come true. In a ritual it’s helpful if we work together. The chant grows stronger when we say or sing the words in unison, like any chorus. Unity can be … fun.

alanwatts

Alan Watts (1915-1973)

The principle remains, whatever the design of the structure you build, house or ritual, song or life. As Alan Watts quipped decades ago — I can’t locate the source offhand — most creatures on the planet are endless variations on a single design: tubes with various attachments. (We’re improvisations, like jazz, like the unrepeatable concert version your favorite band performs of its signature song.) What wonderful diversity elaborating and playing with that unitary principle!

But what’s diversity for? I remember my first years at the school where I taught, serving as international student adviser. “Students from 38 countries!” the school brochures and website crowed at the time. “OK,” I said at one faculty meeting, feeling out the parameters of my new position. “We’ve got diversity. Now what do we do with it?” I genuinely wanted to know. No one answered. But I wasn’t being rhetorical. Was “having” diversity enough? Was that the goal, now achieved, box checked, on to the next item on some larger list? Was the school, were we, with our vaunted diversity, somehow now better? If so, how?! Could we measure it? Could we be or do something, anything, better as a result?

“I desire”, says Thoreau in Walden,

that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.

If we respect ourselves in all our quirky uniqueness and individuality, how can we not respect everything else? Your difference affirms mine. The world and all its creatures, the Chinese wan wu, “Ten Thousand Things”, announce this principle every moment. How can we not glory in such diversity?!

Apparently, to judge by what’s happening in so many places, we often can’t. Is it because we don’t trust our own uniqueness? Do we fear ourselves as distinct and free beings, and therefore fear everyone else who is also a unique self, different from us?

Does your difference help me become better? No, it must be said, not if I run from it in fear, or if I feel I must attack you to protect myself, or deny you any way to live your difference, so that it leaves mine alone. Shortsightedly, I could even claim your difference makes me worse, not better, because I don’t like it, or because you remind me of my own freedom and uniqueness. Because all difference urges me to the responsibility to live from that knowledge. No, I don’t want to become better. Save me from any such transformations! I want to be, not become.

I find truth in the quality of relationship. I want to connect to others who help me become, just as I want to help them become more of who they are.

Selfishly, I readily admit, they’re more fun to be around when they’re becoming than when they’re locked in fear and desperately trying to remain who they are. And paradoxically, they become more of who they are when they keep changing and growing. And so, they tell me, do I.

Yes, the Great Self of the Cosmos first says Be! But then its continues, saying Become! I want to hear those Words and live them. Because what else is there? Serving something larger than the self, another paradox here, fulfills the self. All the many species around me live and flourish and die and return because they and I are what the cosmos does.

And ritual, song, art, creativity in solving problems, joy, relationships with other unique beings, are all ways to express and take part in and complete that doing.

eplurunYes, to be national for a moment, the motto on our U.S. currency proclaims E pluribus unum — “Out of many, one”. When you start with states that are nearly independent nations, unity can hold great allure.

In other contexts, too, of course, we seek that uni-verse, that “one-turning”, of one-ness. But if we seek a more whole truth, a “single turning” through which we might become better, we also recognize and acknowledge and begin to live from its other half, too — its complement, which we’ve often overlooked: Ex uno plures — “Out of One, many”. As the old song goes, echo of a cosmic melody, you can’t have one without the other.

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Images: real/fake; alethiometerAlan Watts;

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