Sometimes these posts are like puzzles. I pick up fragments in the course of daily life, and I find they all belong to the same idea. Remember doing dot-to-dot puzzles as a kid? I’m never sure what the shape is I’m working on, but I turn the pieces of the puzzle around until I’m satisfied with a coherent (hopefully!) post. It’s fun.
If I was bent on delivering a learned lecture in this post, I would have titled it “Postmodernism.” I’m not interested in lecturing, though, or philosophizing, or exploring current ideas and trends in a scholarly way. Ick. If you’re not sure what postmodernism is, here’s a link. You can educate yourself and draw your own conclusions—always the best way!
As I researched postmodernism I came across a referral to “post-truth.” Huh? Post-truth is “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (Oxford Online Dictionary)
Truth is a slippery concept, and I’m not interested in debating whether it’s “real” or not. The tension between objective facts, denial and beliefs is a can of worms I have no interest in opening. I do accept science-based inquiry and methodology, particularly if data can be replicated, the process is peer-reviewed, and the funding is clean and unbiased. For me, truth and learning are dynamic, flexible and organic. What might be true for me today may change tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean today’s truth is necessarily a lie.
I don’t accept that belief and truth are the same, and I don’t accept that feelings and thoughts are necessarily objective facts.
The puzzle pieces I have collected this week all fit into postmodernism, but, as usual, I come at it in my own unique (and slightly off-center) way. Here are the pieces, in no particular order:
One of my four most important values and priorities in making choices is to see things clearly; in other words, not to argue with what is, be in denial, or wholly and unconditionally believe in my own stories, assumptions, and feelings. Understand, I validate, value and rely on my feelings, but I’m very aware they don’t always point to the truth. I might feel rejected, for example, but that doesn’t mean I am rejected. It doesn’t mean I’m not, either. The feeling points me toward something that needs further exploration, that’s all.
When I say “see things clearly,” I mean accepting what is without fear, resistance, apology, or the need to rewrite or sanitize my experience.
The second puzzle piece is a conversation I had with an approximately 30-year-old man in which I described a relationship that was not working well and what I did about it. His comment was that I was “harsh.” Intrigued, I asked if it would have been better if I’d lied to the other party, or continued the relationship in spite of believing it was unhealthy for both of us. He had no answer for that. I asked if he had a suggestion for a kinder or different way I could have communicated my truth clearly. He had no answer for that one, either. What I was left with was that, from his point of view, it was wrong for me to feel the way I did and tell the simple truth about it, without shame or blame, honestly communicating my sadness, my need to part ways, and my caring for the other party.
I’ve thought a lot about this conversation. As regular readers know, I dislike labels and sweeping generalizations, but I wonder if part of his problem with my choice about ending my relationship has to do with the trend in his generation toward postmodernism; that is, that there is no truth, all stories are equal, and to speak “truth” is somehow hateful, bigoted, and/or mean. I’ve even been told stating the truth is “dehumanizing.” Wow.
From my point of view, identifying and speaking the truth is by far the kindest thing we can do for each other and ourselves. Communicating the truth means we are taking responsibility. It means we have the courage to have a difficult conversation face-to-face, rather than ghosting, making excuses, living a lie, or leaving someone with no closure. It means we are healthy enough to take care of ourselves and manage our time and energy, and authentic enough to be heartful and committed in what we choose to do with our lives.
I realize, of course, that some people use the truth as a club, and take no trouble to employ clear, kind language. Shame and blame and refusing to take responsibility are not truthful. Pretending is not truthful. Making excuses is not truthful. Cultivating a pseudo self is not truthful.
The third piece of this particular puzzle was in a book titled Roadwork by Richard Bachman (a.k.a. Stephen King). Here it is:
“But Mary’s footsteps never faltered because a woman’s love is strange and cruel and nearly always clear-sighted, love that sees is always horrible love, and she knew walking away was right and so she walked …”
I’m a fan of King’s writing, and this quote really caught my eye. I stopped reading, bookmarked the quote so I wouldn’t lose it, and thought about being a mother and all the agonizing choices one makes when raising a child. (The context of the quote has to do with a mother and child.)
It’s terribly difficult (and sometimes terribly painful) to be clear-sighted about our own children. We are forced to make decisions that tear us apart, always striving to do what we think is best and frequently missing the mark. Moreover, having children means we are forced to look at ourselves more clearly for their sake, and that process is humbling, painful, and occasionally terrifying.
I ask myself, is this how King experiences a woman’s love? If so, is it a woman’s love for her child he has his eye on, or a woman’s love in general? Is it terrible love because it’s “clear-sighted,” or because women who love are capable of making horribly difficult choices and sacrifices for the sake of those they love? Is it the love that’s “strange and cruel,” or the clear-sightedness of that love? Or both?
I recently wrote about unconditional love. Is that kind of clear-eyed love “horrible” because it’s so powerful?
I’ve mentioned before somewhere on this blog that in the Tarot deck, which has pre-Christian roots, The Devil symbolizes authentic experience. This indicates to me that dealing with the truth is not a new challenge for human beings. Postmodernism is just another cyclical iteration we’ve come up with as we struggle with the truth, misinformation, outright lies, authenticity and pseudo self, the sincere desire of many to be kind and compassionate, and the equally sincere desire on the part of others to control cultural narratives and (dis)information. I’m the first to admire and practice kindness and compassion, but taken too far they become enabling, denial, codependence, pseudo self and abdication of our own self-defense and needs.
The last piece of the puzzle was this link I received to a piece of satire about the “divisiveness” of truth. Satire is not my gig (I have a sneaking suspicion it’s above my head), and I don’t normally enjoy it or pass it on, but this was certainly timely, and it demonstrates the (to me) crazy thinking that postmodernism can lead to.
It seems to me truth is connecting rather than divisive. I’m wary of anyone who responds to the presentation of an objective or science-based fact with a rant about divisiveness. It seems to me that those who seek to persuade us there is no truth anywhere, that whatever we believe is Truth, are the ones who are actively divisive. Critical thinking is not about hate, fear, control or manipulation, it’s about seeing the world around us with curiosity and clarity.
So what’s the deal with the demonization of truth, or authenticity, or honesty, or facts, or whatever? Does it have to do with technological cultural influences? Is it connected to our broken educational system? Does our decreasing literacy (TLDR—too long, didn’t read) play a part? Do our burgeoning health problems, poor diets and ever-increasing toxin loads affect our ability to think well?
Have we become so fat, lazy and comfortable that we simply don’t want to make the effort to learn, explore, reflect and think critically?
Are we so entitled and selfish that we reject unpleasant or unwelcome truths that might threaten our status quo?
Sometimes the truth is painful, inconvenient, and difficult to hear and say. Are we so precious, pampered and cowardly that we need everything sugar-coated and artificially flavored and colored in order to deal with it, never mind if it’s truth or lies? (Have you watched any commercials lately?)
I don’t know. The only power I have is what I do with my own life. In my own life, endeavoring to see things clearly, to understand, to excavate what’s true for me at any given point in time and put it into effective, clear, responsible language and action, are paramount. Objective facts matter. History matters. Science is important. I value literacy, learning, education and professional expertise.
I’ve spent much of my life people pleasing and enabling the destructive behavior of others. I’ve spent much of my life assiduously cultivating what I thought was an acceptable pseudo self. I lacked the courage and support to face my own truths in the privacy of my head, let alone speak them to others. I allowed others to bully, manipulate and punish me for seeking objective facts. I allowed myself to be the target of gaslighting and projection.
I love autumn, and autumn in New England is particularly poignantly beautiful. The leaves, oh the leaves! It’s as though the trees release their passion in one final gasp of ecstasy before their long sleep. The colors stun the senses with their beauty; it’s almost too much to absorb. Yet the trees’ splendor is fleeting. Inexorably, the leaves fall like golden tears, like blazing sparks, and as they fall the greatest power of all is revealed: The true shape of things.
The green and fiery sea of the forest and fields recedes. Lichen-covered rocks bare themselves. Trees stand or lean in bony beauty, gnarled and hollow, smooth and upright, each species clad in its own color and texture, but now the colors are russet and ivory, shades of brown and grey touched with black. Thorns and stems become semi-transparent cover for winter-colored birds and animals.
The bare forest is everything it is and nothing it is not.
I, too, am becoming reduced to my essential self. Confusion, guilt and shame are loosening their hold on me and drifting away, and I make a resting place for them in my writing. I look back in my memory and, for the first time, begin to see the true shape of things. All the words that weighed me down and kept me small, all the gaslighting and controlling, all the lies and distortions, are responding to some miraculous internal seasonal shift and slant of light. I am bursting into triumphant understanding, and then letting go, letting all that does not serve me fall away. My true shape emerges, and it’s strong and clear-seeing and wise. It always was.
Photo by Erik Stine on Unsplash
Now I begin to see the true shape of things. Now begins a season without pretense, unencumbered by expectations. Now the lineaments of my feelings lay bare. The landscape of my life becomes stark and uncomplicated, a walk through winter woods where a feather is a feather, a quill a quill and a swatch of fur on a thorn exactly what it is, not more, not less, not something else entirely. I reclaim the dignity of my own perception, intuition and experience.
It does not surprise me that traditionally this is the time of year when the veil between the worlds thins, ghosts walk, legends come to life, ancestors are honored, and we acknowledge that which haunts us. I do not fear my ghosts. Indeed, they’re old friends and companions. My bogeymen were flesh and blood concealed beneath dazzling costumes of false power, fearful only as long as their true shape was hidden from me.
Some fear the fading light, endings and truth. Some prefer the riot of distraction and confusion. Some refuse to see or know the true shape of things. My own courage is not strengthened by distraction, no matter how beautiful or seductive. My courage is a thing of unadorned simplicity, spare and clean as bone.
Photo by Andrey Grinkevich on Unsplash
The leaves fall, ravishing, rapturous. At last, the true shape of things emerges from the blaze, pure and indestructible, and I embrace it like a lover.
Stories. How many stories can you tell about your life?
Story has always been deeply embedded in the human experience. Every piece of art tells a story. We read, watch television, go to movies, listen to the news, fall in love with music. Stories, all.
Stories teach, entertain, connect, inspire and guide us.
Stories are prisons and torture chambers. They brainwash and manipulate. They can be powerfully limiting.
The paradox of story lies in the power we give it.
Think about a story from your own life. Something painful. Likely it’s a story you’ve told yourself many times. It’s important. It’s part of who you are and how you understand yourself. It’s a place from which you look at the world. It’s absolutely True. You know. You were there. It was such a crippling experience you can’t ever, ever forget.
Stories can’t happen in a void, so there’s an event of some kind, an action, a word, a relationship, other characters in your story.
Photo by Takahiro Sakamoto on Unsplash
Let’s say your story is about four people who spend an hour together on a walk. In that hour everybody sees, smells and hears, thinks and feels different things. After that walk, and maybe for years afterward, each of those four people can tell a story about that day, that walk, that experience. Every one of those stories is partly true. Every one of those stories is inadequate and incomplete. The truest story is the one all four people tell together. If one person’s story is refused, denied, disbelieved or lost, all four people have lost something important out of that hour of their lives. They’ve lost an opportunity for understanding, for compassion, for connection and for becoming just a little bit bigger.
The thing about story is that we create it. Something happens. We have an experience. We have feelings, like mad, glad, sad or scared. We have thoughts about our feelings. We make up a story. We tell it to ourselves over and over again as we try to make sense of our experience, or recover from some hurt. We believe our story to the point that we refuse to consider changing it. We behave as if our story is True.
Photo by SHTTEFAN on Unsplash
Now we have a story that imprisons us. The story has all our power. We hurt people, break relationships and viciously defend our story. We will kill people, including ourselves, to maintain our story. Not only that, others must accept our story in its entirety. They must never question it, add to it or take away from it. Our story becomes us. A threat to our story becomes a threat to our life.
We’ve made something up, chosen to believe in it and now it rules us.
A lot of people talk about truth and lies as though one is black and one is white. As a story teller, a writer and a human being, I question that. What is truth, really? If I was walking with you on that day and I saw a beautiful grass snake and you saw a dangerous serpent, which one of us is lying? What is the truth? I was charmed, you were horrified. So, I must be a sensitive scientist type with big glasses and a mouthful of Latin. And you’re a beautiful, sexy woman with big boobs and brown eyes who needs to be taken care of in the terrifying outdoors.
There. That’s my story. I’m sticking to it. Don’t you dare try to give me a different version.
See what I mean?
Isn’t the truth that two people saw a snake and had two different experiences and sets of feelings around it? Don’t we all have histories, fears, beliefs, prejudices, expectations and filters through which we experience life? Are yours right and mine wrong? Are mine right and yours wrong?
Can’t we allow room for everyone to experience what they experience?
Some people lie, deliberately and with intent. We all know people like that. We learn quickly not to trust them.
Some people distort. They’re caught up in their story about themselves, about the world, about others. They’ve been deeply damaged and wounded, or they struggle with addiction, or they have health problems, or they take medication, or they struggle with mental illness. Am I prepared to call them liars?
No. But I recognize the danger of some of their stories.
Does investment in a distorted story mean the storyteller is not a valuable person worthy of love and compassion? I hope not. I’ve my own set of distorted stories. I think we all have.
Other, very dangerous people deliberately manipulate with story. They invalidate yours in favor of theirs. They tell you you’re wrong, you didn’t understand, you’re too sensitive, you’re too dramatic, you’re too crazy; you’re hateful, bigoted, disloyal, a liar. They tell you your story didn’t happen, that they didn’t hit you, even though there’s blood in your mouth.
So what do we do about story — ours and everyone else’s?
Maybe the most important thing is to be aware that much of what’s happening in our head is a story. It might be partly true. It might not be. It’s certainly part of something larger than our point of view. Our feelings are ours and we need to honor them, but our thoughts about our feelings can become a real problem.
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash
We could ask others about their stories. We could be open, curious, nonjudgmental, compassionate, respectful and prepared to be enriched by someone’s perceptions and experiences. We could, in short, build healthy connection.
If we’re holding tight to a story that hurts us, angers us, or is otherwise destructive, we could go to other characters in the story, tell them how we feel and ask for help understanding the situation.
We can build trust and respect with ourselves. We can claim the power and dignity to form our own opinions about others, based on our own observations and experience, and decide when to build connection and when to limit it. We can refrain from repeating destructive stories to or about others. We can take responsibility for our own rigidity and blind spots; our intolerance, injustice and poor communication skills, and own that we might make mistakes in judgement.
Photo by James Pond on Unsplash
We can be wary and watchful of people who impose their stories on us. Some people use story like a hammer and chisel, relentlessly splitting connection and relationship. In the end they hurt themselves the most, but many a relationship has been lost because of this kind of behavior.
We can pay attention to red flags such as feeling confused, feeling torn, feeling overwhelmed, feeling exhausted by drama, and feeling dragged down or being asked to keep destructive secrets. Healthy people in our lives who truly love us will never try to split us from others or force us to make a “them or me” choice. Healthy people do not share destructive personal stories about others publicly, nor do they tolerate or enable this kind of behavior. Healthy people communicate honestly, directly and clearly and recognize the ineffectiveness of black-and-white thinking.
In the end, our only power lies within the circumference of our own lives. If we want others to give us a chance to speak when someone tells a distorted story about us, we must do the same for them. If we want to be heard, understood and treated with respect and compassion, we must extend those to others. If we’re hurt and angry, we must find appropriate and effective ways to talk about that, either with a professional or with others in our story. We can’t control what others say and believe about us. We can only live the most authentic lives possible and hope that our actions and words speak for themselves. We can be responsible for our own stories.
For more on the power of story, here’s another blog you might be interested in. Same subject, different writer. It’s titled Who Are You?
Also, here’s a link to a remarkable teacher, Byron Katie, who asks, “Who are you without your story?” I highly recommend her.
Do your stories about yourself limit you? Do your stories about others limit them? Can you consider another version of one of your stories? What needs to happen for you to revise one destructive story you’ve created?