John Seven: Amid myriad personal truths, empathy is vital
NORTH ADAMS >> Recently, I encountered the phrase "that's my truth." It was in regard to a disintegrating marriage, uttered continually by one person in the marriage as a defense of her actions.
These did not jibe with our understanding of the situation, nor what we knew from others, but that never mattered. "That's my truth" was repeatedly utilized as a barrier to discussion.
Though unable to track down the specific origin of that term, I've deciphered that it comes from therapy and self-help. It sounds like a term that is useful when examining your situation, a mantra that allows you to consider personal views of your own history and psyche as part of a thought process.
But I wonder if these words are useful when spoken aloud for everyone to hear? Isn't this clinging to the idea of "my truth" exactly what is wrong with our current point in history? Isn't that what the battle between American political wings comes down to?
Isn't that what so-called politically correct students and so-called free speech advocates are clashing about? Isn't that the crucial element for creating communities of anti-vaccine activists and climate change deniers and the birther movement and anyone taking anything Deepak Chopra has to say seriously? Is that all about seizing the fences that "my truth" builds up around a belief, protecting it from scrutiny?
At some point, we unleashed the single greatest form of communication and information access ever created, but I'm afraid the human brain isn't ready for the multiple truths that the Internet has allowed access to. What happened is thousands of enclaves guarding personal truths popped up within our networked world, shelters from the wider, messier truth that is our atmosphere. But the snug, warm, safe shelters of personal truths are what we end up fighting for, and only sometimes do those have anything to do with wider ones.
If you read enough about neurology, say, the types of things Oliver Sacks regularly studied, you know that personal truth is more of an agreed upon fiction that allows us to give ourselves a narrative to work with. Everyone needs a narrative to get through life, and we give narratives to social and political movements, too, as a way of achieving clarity and also expressing them to other people, in the hope that they, too, will accept this narrative as their personal truth on the matter.
I also imagine that stepping outside your personal truth and viewing, acknowledging, trying to understand all these other personal truths out there is akin to suddenly being aware of extra dimensions or multiple universes. Probably most people would go insane from such awareness. These things might be too big for the human brain to handle.
And yet, put into terms of personal truth, isn't that what empathy is? Understanding these other closed systems. Getting inside them even if they are walled off. And with empathy, don't things like mercy and forgiveness need to follow, even if true understanding is further away.
That's my truth — the acceptance that mine isn't the only one floating around. The challenge is to achieve empathy for the truths that seem most different from my own.
We no longer have Walter Cronkite to read the truth to us at the end of the day, and the gods are becoming less universal and more the domain of these personal truths. If we're going to splinter like this, we need to try harder to understand that our own truth is not the only one, nor will it ever be, and we may not like other truths we encounter.
But they are there. And they are not going away. So don't make your own truth a prison.
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