What is True?

Follow your dreams! Do what you love and the money will follow! The universe has a plan.

What makes you so special? Everybody else just sucks it up and goes to work. The universe is meaningless.

There is a God, and we know what He wants. There is no God. There might be a god, but we have no way of knowing what he wants from us. There are many gods, but they are all manifestations of The One.

You are already enlightened, you just haven’t realized it yet. To think that you could become enlightened in this lifetime is the height of ego.

When we live our lives bombarded with contradictory messages, how do we find our path? How do we find a story that is consistent with our experiences, makes internal sense, and provides us with a way to navigate the vagaries of life? How do we decide what is true?

These seem like such abstract and philosophical questions that to spend time with them is a luxury. Aren’t they best left to undergraduates who have time to drink coffee and pontificate, and the small fraction of perpetual students who manage to parlay those skills into a paying job. What is true?!? Who has time to worry about that? We need to pay all these bills, run all these errands, and get the kids over to see the grandparents before we get another scathing phone call about neglect. Maybe when we are older, and the kids leave home, and the mortgage is paid off. Maybe when we get a permanent job. Maybe when we make partner. But surely we don’t have time to think about that right now.

Yet it is ultimately the most practical of questions, because how we deal with our day-to-day tasks depends on how we answer that question. What do we prioritize? What do we spend our money on? Who do we spend time with? Who do we listen to for advice? Did we even have kids? It is, in truth, the most important question.

I don’t know what is true. I have staggered a path through various degrees of certainty, and I have realized that I know less and less. If I keep learning, soon I will know nothing. But in exchange for knowledge, I have gained possibility.

So. Some things that I currently suspect to be true:

Each of us is a meaning-making part of the universe. Each of us has a (profoundly limited) model of the world that we carry around inside our head/minds/mind-body. Every moment we use our models to predict what comes next: How will that person behave? Should I eat that? Will buying this (thing/stock/degree/house/wedding) make me happy? Am I safe? Am I safe? Am I safe?

The safety ping is on all the time. It’s like echolocation in bats. We navigate the world looking for Safe. We compromise, negotiate, fail, modify our images of ourselves and others, with so much power on the Safety ping. What is true? Whatever will keep us safe. Don’t trust. Don’t risk. Follow these rules, and you will have the life/love/job you have always wanted. Or, risk everything for love! Chuck it all and move to Tahiti!

Well, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you follow all the rules, and everything happens the way it was supposed to, and you get to be a doctor with a nice house, and a perfect partner who cooks dinner, and well dressed children. (That’s the story, isn’t it? Isn’t that what passes for Cinderella these days?) And if it hasn’t worked, you just have to try harder. Or follow the rules better. Or go to church and pray more. Or give up all that praying and become an atheist. Be more sacrificing. Or work more hours. Something.

I know people who have tried all of those things. All of them. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. What is true?

Let me go out on a limb here. I don’t know what is true, but I know what isn’t. The Truth (if there is One) is not any one of those provisional models. The fictional version of your partner that you carry around in your head? Not true. Your explanation of what your boss was thinking at such and such a time? Not true. Yet they have the ring of truth. They are functional. Our greatest mistake is that we mistake our functional models for truth… and then insist that other people adopt the same ones to prove it.

Don’t believe me? Check out the comments section on, oh… everything. Parenting articles on major magazines will do to start. Nasty, cruel, mudslinging, name calling… all in the pursuit of convincing the world of one’s rightness… of the truth. The one who gets to be ‘right’ is the one who spins the most convincing story or is simply the loudest. This is no way of finding truth.

What is true? I don’t know. I have wandered the world in search of truth, and I have come across stories instead. I have heard Richard Dawkins and his ilk dismiss enormous fractions of the human experience as mere delusion. I have have heard true believers wave away the problem of catastrophes with “mysterious ways”, karma, or attraction of negative vibrations. I have heard Thomas King tell me that “the truth about stories is that’s all we are.” I have heard Hamlet tell me that we don’t kill ourselves in the face of it all because we are afraid of the undiscovered country. And I have heard Camus (and Pema Chodron) tell us that we needed to encounter the absurdity of it all and then keep going anyway. The Wisdom of No Escape. Here we are, not quite sure what we’re up to. Trying not to make too much of a mess of it all. Telling a story or two in hopes that they will help somebody else. Spreading the memes that look likely to lead to the type of world we want to inhabit. Hoping they might be… true.

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