I have been thinking about truth a lot lately. What is it? Who defines it? What does it look like?
Let’s start with an easy one. It is true that water has a freezing point of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, so most people define 32 degrees as “freezing”. Freezing, however, means different things to different people based on the climate in which they live. What feels “freezing” to a New Yorker is going to differ from what feels “freezing” to a Floridian. Here in Florida, people panic and bring out the long johns for anything under 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This is completely ridiculous to the man or woman in Chicago or New York who is digging their car out from under piles of snow when the temperatures are registering below zero degrees.
So who is right? What defines freezing? Is it relative to where the person claiming to be frozen lives geographically? I claim to be “freezing” in our apartment when the thermostat is set below 75, but my husband will be sweating bullets at the same temperature. If we are both correct in our experience of the temperature, given our different biological composition and levels of comfort, then where is the absolute measure for “freezing”?
That is an easy example, and one most of us would not contest. We would just say “you do you” and move on in that situation. But what about when the question relates to morality, faith (gulp!), or even politics (double gulp!)?
Where is the truth when we all come from different walks of life, different neurobiological frameworks, different geographic locations, different values, different levels of education, different parents, different belief systems, and different generations?
For me, the question has shifted from just being about “What is true?” to including “When is it ok to be different?” The danger in this is assuming there is no absolute truth and that we are all free to pursue whatever seems true to each person in the moment. This is one of the questions that is raised consistently throughout the plot line of the television show The Good Place. In the show, Kristen Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, a selfish, morally ambiguous American woman who is killed by a Viagra truck while attempting to retrieve a ginormous bottle of margarita mix after cursing out an environmentalist at the grocery store. While the twists and turns of the show are hilarious, the question that seems to thread through every episode is “What is right and what is wrong, and who gets to decide?”
If each person is permitted to decide what is right and true based on their own preferences and beliefs, then the world turns to total anarchy because each person is operating from his or her own personal definition of truth. However, if there is some form of absolute truth and certain moral codes to which we are all held, then there is a standard for how people treat themselves and each other.
So what is true? In the 1992 film A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise plays a young military attorney who relentlessly interrogates Jack Nicholson in regards to a decision made regarding the death of a U.S. marine at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. During the heated courtroom scene, Cruise demands the truth from Nicholson, to which Nicholson shouts “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH”. Nicholson proceeds to explain that no one, including Cruise, could understand what he has done because they do not know what he knows and have not seen what he has seen.
Maybe there is some truth to Nicholson’s famous line. Maybe none of us can handle the truth. We all want to be in the right. We all want to do what is best according to our own beliefs and experiences. I believe there is an absolute truth, but I am not sure our human minds are capable of completely grasping it on this side of eternity.
I will never forget my first day in grad school. One of the professors and heads of the program took out a large piece of glass with a beautiful scenery painted on it. He described the glass as Eden, a picture of all that is true and beautiful and right and good. Then he wrapped the glass painting in a garbage bag, took out a hammer, and smashed it. He proceeded to remove shards and pieces from the bag, explaining that all of the great philosophers and psychologists throughout the millennia each had a piece of what was a greater work of art. Socrates had one, Aristotle had one, Plato, Epicurus, right up to Freud, Jung, and hundreds of others. Even if we were able to reunite every piece, there would still be cracks and we would not have a perfect picture of what the picture originally communicated.
By now my conservative Christian friends are probably shouting at the computer. “Lindsey, the answer is Jesus!” And yes, I do still believe that. I don’t believe that any one denomination or one translation of the Bible can claim to have it all right. I do believe that absolute truth stems from the one who created the universe (God) and that the Creator sent his son (Jesus), who is also a part of God, to take on human flesh and human tendencies to live a perfect and blameless life so that he could be sacrificed to atone for the sins of all men and women. I believe we can’t earn forgiveness. I do believe in grace, the idea that not one of us deserves what we receive from the Lord (eternal life and forgiveness). And this believe shapes my understanding of truth and how I am to treat the people around me. If I have been forgiven for my numerous and heinous sins, then it stands to reason that everyone else around me as been forgiven as well, so why should I treat anyone differently from anyone else? Shouldn’t I treat all people with kindness, dignity, respect, and love?
“But what about the [fill in the blank here with any noun other than Christian]?” Guess what…they deserve love and kindness and dignity and respect as well!
“But what about the [fill in the blank with mildly racist/sexist/homophobic slur or term]?” They deserve love and kindness and dignity and respect, too!
Look, I don’t have a grasp on absolute truth. I have some ideas. I think we will ALL be surprised when we die and meet our Maker. But I also know that each person I encounter along the way is coming from a different set of life experiences and, therefore, a different set of beliefs about the world and the people in it.
What if the truth is this: that each of us, regardless of who we are or what we believe, is called to treat every other person, regardless of who they are or what they believe, with kindness, love, dignity, and respect? Worst case scenario is that we find out we were wrong all along. Best case scenario is that people start treating people like people, and the world becomes a kinder, lovelier, more dignified, and more respectable place.
If that is the case, maybe the truth isn’t so hard to handle after all.