A grain of salt, a kernel of truth

elephantThe expression ‘take what you hear with a grain of salt’ reminds me to allow for the very likely possibility that what I’m hearing is not entirely true. This is usually no fault of the person sharing. It’s just the nature of living in a complex world full of ever evolving knowledge.

Conversely, in every statement I hear, I try to notice that it has at least a kernel of truth in it. This is challenging because of the visceral reaction I feel to any idea or world view with which I strongly disagree.  But it is worth the effort, because if I can activate a sense of compassion for the person, listen carefully to what they are saying, I may be able to see the fear that is driving their statement and my reaction. In this way I can find our shared humanity. (Read more about Faulty Filters of Fear)

If truth is valued, then it’s important to take with a grain of salt even an idea we cherish and to recognize the kernel of truth even in an idea we abhor.

We would probably all prefer a solid truth to rely on, but accepting any old thing as true is obviously not the answer. In our rush to feel we know what’s what, we tend to accept things at face value if they feel true to us. But why do they feel true? Because they are familiar? We heard them repeated from parents, other family members, teachers, schoolmates, admired community leaders and news sources. Are any of those completely reliable sources? Or were they just repeating what they heard and accepted or hoped was true?

We get attached to our version of truth. We welcome anything that confirms it and feel threatened by anything that challenges it.  We incorporate these ‘truths’ into who we believe ourselves to be. We want to be right at any cost, because being wrong would dismantle our tightly held sense of self.  We likely label those who disagree with us as wrong, misguided, bullheaded or maybe even evil. We are less and less likely to reach out and engage with others outside a defined ‘safe’ circle, because from inside that circle it seems as if the world, or ‘wrong-thinking’ pockets in it, are dangerous and threatening.

Stuck in our entrenched positions, it is quite challenging to cultivate qualities of compassion and loving kindness. We may like to think we are kind, but we only extend compassion to people within circumscribed areas of agreement. Outside of that is a dangerous land of enemy thinkers we deem undeserving of our compassion.

Then we come to meditation practice and we are asked to send infinite loving-kindness to all beings. We are asked not to make an enemy of anything or anyone. This feels like an insurmountable challenge, maybe even one we don’t want to take on. What would we have to give up of ourselves to let down our guard in that way? The very idea threatens who we believe ourselves to be, and yet we believe ourselves to be good and kind. Uh oh! What a pickle!

At this point the most fearful among us make an enemy of the practice itself, saying ‘It’s not for me’ or ‘I don’t believe in that malarkey’. They go back to the bitter battle of defining their territory and needing to be right in order to feel okay.

That’s one choice. What’s the other? Do we have to hang out with people we disagree with and bite our tongues while they rant nonsense?

No. As a kindness to ourselves we can choose to respectfully steer clear of people caught up in tornadoes of fear and anger, unless we feel centered enough and called upon to help. Then we do so as conduits of infinite loving-kindness. If we’re not feeling kind even toward ourselves, it is best not to engage. Instead we focus on taking care of ourselves first because we have nothing to offer anyone else but our own fear-based opinions and depletable resources which will be of use to no one, and could make matters worse.

To not make an enemy of anyone doesn’t mean we have to agree with them. But they don’t have to agree with us for us to recognize our shared existence in this complex web of being. They are caught up in this tricky business of living just as we are. We may not wish that their goals come to fruition, but we do wish them well. (Even if in wishing them well we sneakily think, that if they were well they would not be so caught up in their wrong thinking!)

Our willingness to extend compassion to all beings, regardless of what they believe, helps us to be kinder to ourselves as well. We all have aspects of ourselves that we don’t feel particularly good about. We may have tried keeping them hidden but they pop out in all sorts of inconvenient ways. We create a fortress of Self, constructed of our preferences and our firm ideas that we defend to the end. We expend so much energy in this defensive stance that we become exhausted and none the happier for all our efforts. We just get prickly and prone to provoking fear-based emotions in others, causing misery all around.

The kinder we are to ourselves the less dependent we are on having to be right in order to be okay. But why would we want to let go of being right? Isn’t that losing something? In my experience, and in the experience of many others, giving up the need to be right is a great relief. We are not at war here. We are in a complex community of life that thrives on collaboration and communication and coexistence. The less vested we are in being right all the time, the happier we tend to be. Is that true? And if so, how do we get there?

First, let’s look at the expansive history and ongoing evolution of thought and knowledge. Consider how the facts that were accepted as true one hundred years ago don’t all hold up to the light of what further research has shown to be true. In many cases, it’s simply that we didn’t have a lens to see what was right before our eyes. Whether looking at things on a cellular level or into the cosmos, in both cases what our forebears could see with their limited tools don’t all hold up today, do they? That alone can give us pause to hold our current acceptance of what we ‘know’ to be true a little more lightly.

But still, for most of us, budging at all from our long-held opinions would be threatening. We have a need to be right, to know it all, to have things locked in.

Could we adopt a more scientific mindset? Could we inquire, observe, hypothesize, experiment and be open to being proven wrong in our hypothesis? The scientific community is trained to question everything. Non-scientists can adopt at least a degree of that same liberated mind instead of accepting any particular fact as the absolute truth.

But wait, we might say, things happened in history and some things we saw before our very eyes. Surely that is true, right? History is presented as facts, but history is written by the victors, by the dominant culture and throughout recorded history primarily by men. The filters that naturally arise from these varied perspectives present some facts and not others, either by complete omission or by highlighting certain aspects, projecting attributes upon them, and giving them whatever motivation, perspective and emphasis the person who lived to tell the tale chooses.

There seems to be a wave of research into previously untold stories to broaden and deepen our understanding of what life might have been like before our time. As important as this is, we can never recreate it exactly. We bring the zeitgeist of our current culture, our own slant laced with nostalgia or horror at past injustice. No re-creation of the past can help but be flawed. But for most of us it is far better than letting the past disappear completely and all the lessons learned lost.

Because of this interest, we now have a number of dedicated museums that are willing to look without blinders at things like the Holocaust, the African-American historical experience, etc. We even have the technology to capture in a most profoundly moving way a Holocaust survivor in a  hologram. In his own words he answers whatever question a visitor might pose in real time about his life and experiences. Along with written and oral accounts, a vital history lesson is being preserved in the hopes of never allowing such a thing to happen again.

Being open to listen and learn from people’s personal experiences is much easier if we don’t have preconceived notions that filter out what we are uncomfortable hearing. None of us want to believe that such horrors could occur, but denying that they do would seem a sure way to perpetuate them.

No one individual’s perspective will capture the whole of an experience, but by cobbling together a multiplicity of personal perspectives, we can come much closer to understanding the past. We might think that one factual account of an eyewitness would be completely reliable, but life is multifaceted. When the San Francisco Bay Area had a powerful earthquake in October 1989, those who lived through it asked each other the classic post-trauma question ‘Where were you?’ resulting in a wide variety of recountings of personal experience. So already, even in the moment, you have hundreds of thousands of versions of the facts, all of them true, but none of them telling the whole story. It’s like the blind men feeling the elephant and each coming out with a completely different description of what ‘elephant’ is, as shown in this video.

The earthquake was more than a collection of personal experiences. There are lots of facts: the date, the time, the 6.9 magnitude as recorded on the Richter scale. These facts are true, but possibly not the whole truth. Clock time itself is a cultural agreement among humans, not observed by the rest of nature, after all. And the measuring equipment will probably be considered unreliable and obsolete in fifty years. There were undeniable facts of fatalities, injuries and structural failures. But each fact is one facet of a much larger story that we don’t know. We didn’t know the victims personally and even if we did, no one knows anyone completely. Seismic engineers may be able to figure out probable cause for structural failures, but fifty years hence chances are there will be more in-depth understanding. This doesn’t make the facts untrue. It just makes them incomplete. That’s useful for us to remember when we think we know something. Can we at least acknowledge that our facts are incomplete?

On retreat at Spirit Rock a few years ago I suddenly had the knock-on-the-head recognition that ‘I don’t know!’ Looking around I could see how my mental shorthand, our communal convenient labeling of the world we live in as objects with names, left me still lacking in any real knowledge. My mental notation of ‘tree’ is just a skim the surface shorthand that’s necessary in order not to be overwhelmed by all the information being presented at every turn in this life. I don’t know and am unable to observe the goings on inside that tree or where it’s root go underground. I’ve been taught some things about the processes in general, but honestly I don’t know in this particular tree’s case what’s going on. I don’t know its history, what tree it fell from as a seedling, how it came to grow in this spot, etc. etc. And understanding how limited my knowledge was did not make me ambitious to find out more. It liberated me from feeling I had to know everything in order to feel okay. I hadn’t realized how tightly wrapped I had been in the fear-based need to believe that my shorthand version of the world is complete.

We have shorthand ways of defining people as well. We assign them categories based on gender, age, weight, height, ethnicity, profession, personality traits, clothing, possessions, etc. But what does it all add up to? Assumptions! And those assumptions cause us to judge them based on our experiences, in person or through the media, with others who we have pigeonholed in some of the same categories. Is this the way we want to be known? Of course not. Each of us wants to be seen clearly with fresh eyes, not through preconditioned filters that are blindingly inaccurate.

All the conclusions we draw are based on ephemera. And our assumptions come back to bite us in so many ways. For example, in our desire to be seen, respected, loved and admired we often compare ourselves with others. But we compare their perceived polished outsides with our more in-depth view of our own messy insides. Neither of our judgments are accurate.

We can see how clinging to our need to be right at all costs doesn’t serve us. But we may still feel we know facts when we see them. Let’s look at more examples from the 1989 earthquake.

People across the country watching film footage on television news were led to believe that the whole of San Francisco and much of the East Bay were in ruins. Why would a news report show the untouched areas? That’s not news because nothing changed. What had changed, and was therefore newsworthy, was the collapsed freeway and Bay Bridge, and the Marina district in flames. With so much going on, it’s not surprising that reporters failed to mention that the majority of the Bay Area was perfectly fine.

That’s the news biz for you! ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is the policy of the newsroom. Feeding the negativity bias of the survival mode part of our brain, is a safe bet for news shows to keep ratings up. In the newsroom, choices are constantly being made as to what to present. When my husband Will was a TV news film editor, the Black Panthers were much in the news. The reporters would tell Will what clips to include and in what order to suit their stories. It horrified him to see how they chose to include shots that showed them as militaristic and threatening, then routinely exclude footage of the community help programs run by the Panthers. So disturbed was he by this daily misrepresentation, that he saved the discarded footage on a reel in his work drawer. He should have taken it home. Eventually it was discovered and destroyed.

History is often destroyed because it doesn’t represent the skewed viewpoint of the person who is presenting the news. Today almost all of us carry around a phone that can record history in the making. This is changing our understanding of our world in wondrous and horrifying ways. We are seeing many more videos of cute and funny animals, of humans helping others of every species, of people standing way to close to tornadoes and lava flow, and we see firsthand the brutality and misuse of lethal force by those who are meant to protect us. In this way we are expanding the input possible, cobbling together a more accurate sense of things. But at the same time we are filtering out what doesn’t confirm our worldview, thus becoming more entrenched, and more likely to consider other views as ‘enemy’.

Can we recognize our own intentions and the intentions of those who are sharing their stories, each with their own hopes, dreams and agenda? In the long run, I can imagine that this explosion of sharing will offer future historians a more accurate reflection of the times we live in.         But they will have a whole lot of cat videos to wade through.

In next week’s post we will look at how to live with not knowing — and love it!

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2 thoughts on “A grain of salt, a kernel of truth

  1. HMarie

    This is a wise, nuanced, and much-needed take on our current political and cultural situation of bitterly divided camps. I will admit to being a hyper-opinionated person who could certainly stand some softening. In fact, my bedrock political beliefs (which to me are moral precepts) are so integral to who I (think I) am, I really don’t know who I would be without them. I’m not ready to give them up, but a little humility wouldn’t hurt.
    Your warning about “filtering out what doesn’t confirm our worldview” brings to mind the tragic current clash in Gaza between Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides have deep legitimate historical grievances the other side simply cannot see, and thus denies.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Stephanie Noble Post author

      Thank you for your comments and your willingness to explore. You bring up several important points, one of which I’ll be sure to incorporate into future dharma talks/posts.

      Like

      Reply

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