Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”John 18:38
We have a curious love/hate relationship going with truth these days. There is a lot of “truth” being thrown about. My truth. His truth. Your truth. Some of us run fast and loose with truth. Some believe we can’t handle the truth. Perhaps they are right.
Do a quick search on Google for “truth” and one finds a definition. “The quality or state of being true.” Hmm. Perhaps the next one is more helpful: “That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.” Ok, I think I understand fact or reality. But wait, there is another option: “A fact or belief that is accepted as true.” Ironically, the example Google shares for the last definition is “the emergence of scientific truths.” After the pandemic, I suspect that many of us will never look at the expression “scientific truths” the same again.
If “a fact or belief that is accepted as true” is actually what “truth” is, then “truth” must, in fact, be truly relative. Please forgive that last sentence – I simply could not resist the delicious irony, or perhaps, idiocy of writing it. Apparently, there are still mysteries in the universe, though any discoveries made are subject to change based on what one chooses to accept as fact.
Fortunately, moving a little further down Google’s search page, we discover the real (notice I chose the word “real” rather than “true” – does that help?) mystery of truth in that there is “essential truth,” which is objectively true and “relative truth,” which is subjectively true. No wonder we can’t seem to find the truth in anything. Do you swear to provide the essential truth, the essential truth, and nothing but the essential truth?
Shame on Me
No wonder trust seems to be at an all time low. If we don’t know what truth is, how can we possibly trust anything or anyone?
Star Trek’s Scotty offered us a pretty good answer: “There’s an old saying on Earth, Mr. Sulu. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Eventually, the reality of our actions becomes evident. Objective truth hits us between the eyes when we can see it, feel it, hear it, and experience it directly. We can say whatever we want, but The Truth will eventually reveal itself.
In Memoirs of the Second World War, Winston Churchill wrote: Truth is incontrovertible. Panic may resent it. Ignorance may deride it. Malice may distort it. But there it is. His statement is eloquent and powerful. One might add “eventually” to the end of it. Eventually, the reality of it will present itself.
Of course, truth doesn’t really matter if we’re not interested in finding it. Let’s face it, many of us seem quite content with being fooled. Often, we allow ourselves to be lied to by people, governments, organizations, and even ourselves. Why? Because it frequently seems easier to believe the falsehood, and behave accordingly, than to accept the truth and face the action it may demand. Shame on us.
And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.John 8:32
The quotation above refers to a profoundly different kind of truth but it is a great reference point for our secular world. The truth is that falsehoods enslave us. They shackle us to beliefs, biases, and inaccuracies that limit our ability to thrive. If we are sharing falsehoods, we become trapped in the lie that must be perpetuated but will ultimately come to light. If we are accepting falsehoods by looking the other way or allowing ourselves to be deceived, we are ensnared in someone else’s web of deceit that will also eventually reveal itself. In both cases, we are lessened, and will eventually have to pay the price.
Living the Truth
Perhaps there are objective truths that will remain difficult to discern as we struggle to validate or repudiate them. Fine, we’ll leave the great sweep of mankind and the universe to philosophers and scientists, focusing instead on more personal truths that center on our character and how we choose to live.
Where might the “truth” set you free? Start by being truthful with yourself.
- The truth of your intentions. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Why are you trying to establish a relationship with someone? Why do you want to buy that special thing? Why does that promotion matter? Why are you donating that money? The truth is that we are massively self-centered. We are made that way because it is critical to survival. The problem is that it is also part of our greatest flaw: selfishness. When we are selfish, we limit the possibilities in our relationships. When everything centers on our desires, we miss the opportunity to give of ourselves fully. When our motivations take, and keep, center stage, the joy of helping others achieve their dreams eludes us. The truth is: we are made for more than just ourselves.
- The truth of your efforts. Are you doing the best you can? The Great Resignation continues to appear in headlines. We hear of labor shortages and people “ghosting” interviews or new jobs they’ve accepted. The answers all seem to point at the evil, uncaring, selfish, employers. There is so much out there about crappy managers, terrible work environments, silly policies, etc. The truth is: we own our situation. Everyone seems to want someone else to make things better. Dumb managers should be better so I like my job better. The government should pass laws to make people hire me because I deserve it or pay me more or give me better benefits or forgive my student debt or give me free healthcare or charge less for products and on and on. Why do we do that? What are we waiting for? The best jobs are the ones we build. The best relationships are the ones we build. The happiest people are the ones who work hard at being happy or thriving or succeeding or changing or growing or __________. Are your efforts getting you the results you want? Are you doing the best you can do?
- The truth of your beliefs. What do you believe in? Are you living according to those beliefs? We often lie to ourselves about what we believe. We tell ourselves we are good people. We tell ourselves that we are moral and upright citizens. We tell ourselves we are better than that person over there and feel good knowing that is the case. We tell ourselves we love freedom or the environment or God or homeless people or animals and, yet, so often we don’t behave the way we tell ourselves that we believe. The truth is: if you’re not living according to your beliefs, you’re lying to yourself. If you can’t trust yourself, you’ll never trust anyone else. At the same time, we’re lying to others as we try to convince them that we are something we’re not. Oh, they eventually find us out and realize they can’t trust us.
- The truth of what you’ve done. Think about that for a moment. What is the truth of what you’ve done? In the Catholic tradition, we have a thing we call the Examination of Conscience. The idea is to take a hard look at the mistakes you’ve made and own them, feel sorry about them, seek forgiveness for them, and seek to avoid doing them again. Even if you don’t buy into the notion of Divine forgiveness, there is something to be said for examining your conscience. Every single day, we do, say, and think things that are unkind, unnecessary, unworthy, and underhanded. We can’t help it. Then, we lie to ourselves about it. We tell ourselves that they deserved it. We tell ourselves that nobody noticed. We tell ourselves that we didn’t mean it. We tell ourselves it was an accident. The truth is: that there is real healing power in acknowledging the errors of our ways and seeking forgiveness for our mistakes. If forgiveness is out of reach, then atonement in some fashion is always available. Restoration by working to make something right can be liberating.
- The truth of who you want to be. There is the truth of what we are and then there is the truth of what we want to be. Who do you want to be? As you consider the questions above, does the person you want to be align with the person you are today? If not, are you on the path toward that better person? We are all works in progress. If you’ve decided that you’re already the best version of yourself possible, then I challenge you to look again. No matter who or where you are, you are made for more. Again and again and again, the truth must be discerned.
We cannot control how truthful the world is with us. However, we can control how honest we are with ourselves and with those around us. Truth frees us from the burden of dishonesty and deceit. Truth allows us to move confidently through our world because we know who we are and where we stand. Truth empowers us to own our life. Truth enables us to trust and to be trusted. Truth cannot prevent us from making mistakes but it can help us learn from them. But only if we can be truthful with ourselves.
What is truth? That seems like a great place to start.