09 May 2013

Oh Say, What is Truth?

The word "true" gives me a headache.

Growing up, I used the word like I was handing out Halloween candy - freely and to anyone (or anything) that came to the door.  "I know the scriptures are true" I would say in testimony meetings.  "I know the church is true".  "I know the prophet is true".  The word "true" was applied to dozens of things and ideas and people and I felt it.  I felt it.

As a child, I designated truth as anything that was not false.  It was a clean, nice, straightforward definition.  The answer was either right or wrong.  The choice was either good or bad.  There was no middle ground when it came down to it.  No room for a "but what if. . . ?"  There was no grey area in which truths and falsehoods could co-habitate.  It was all or nothing, baby.

When I was in high school, I took a World Literature class from a fabulous teacher.  One unit that still stands out in my mind was a unit where we read several creation stories and flood stories.  Nearly every corner of the world has these stories, we were taught - and our job was to guess why.  We read the story of Noah and the Ark compared to folk tales involving turtle shells and Zeus' angry flood to get rid of the extravagant Bronze Age, and others.  The flood stories fascinated me especially.  It made sense that so many cultures would want to know where the beginning of everything fit - but flood stories?  According to how I'd been brought up, Noah and his family (and their menagerie) were the only survivors of the flood.  Shouldn't there be only one story?  Only one truth?  What if there had been many different flood interpretations - were those stories still valid?  Were they also true?

Later, in college, I took an Anthropology class from a professor who had grown up more or less in a mortuary.  Her father was the mortician and she had found the experience so interesting that she had gone on to study birth and burial rights with an emphasis on East Asian experience.  She told dozens of stories including one about a family who had a dead body in the back room of their house for ages until they could afford an expensive funeral for her - they had ancient royal blood in their family and, though they were impoverished now, had to provide a certain standard of funeral.

The story that stood out to me most, though, was one about a woman she met who had converted to Christianity.  Christianity was rare in that particular location where Buddhism and other local belief systems reined supreme, so my professor had asked the woman what it was that had told her that Christianity was right.  "I had a great pain behind my forehead," the woman had responded, pointing to a spot between her eyes.  "And I knew it was true."

Come to find out, the woman had been raised to believe that great spiritual experiences give a person headaches.  It was a far cry from the "warm fuzzy feelings" I'd been told about all my life.  But since I, too, believed in Christianity - could I also stretch my beliefs beyond fuzzies and into headaches to conduits of truth discovery?  Where were headaches in scripture?

Then there were bigger problems: what about truths that weren't "real" per-say?  If truth and lies are the equivalent of non-fiction and fiction, then it suggests that anything that doesn't exist in the concrete, tangible places isn't true, or at least cannot promote or produce truth.  This doesn't seem quite right either - Christ himself taught through parables - fictional stories that represent good virtues.  I had myself seen hundreds of movies and books, listened to hours of music, pretended to be someone else in theater - some of these experiences made truths clearer to me than any "real" experiences.  Were the truths taught via. Jane Eyre or Ender's Game or Charlotte's Web any less valid than truths learned from the time I spent not reading?   

One of my classes has just finished reading Life of Pi, a book based on the premise that the stories we tell - about our own lives, and about our faith - are part of what bring us to God.  The character Pi Patel is thrown into rather horrific circumstances that involve being stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger.  At the end of the story when Pi has finally reached land and the authorities are questioning him, he tells them two versions of his story: the one he's told the entire book, and a rather more disturbing one.  Although it is never verified - it is suggested that this second more awful version is the "true" version.  The version that has been told the entire book is the version that Pi has been telling himself to help cope with the awful things he has seen.  It is a story that enables him to try and move beyond tragedy - it is the story that allows him to understand the meaning of his experience and what he can learn from it.  In much the same way that we, when faced with things we don't understand, try to predict why God might be "doing this to us", Pi has constructed a highly symbolic tale that he determines is more true than reality because it is the story that changes him more.

One parent disagreed with this analysis.  "Pi's fabrication does not relate a more profound reality," he wrote.  "The story was not about truth, but about storytelling.  The problem I see with it is that if the truth doesn't matter, then any story is as good as any other story.  Or any story is as meaningless as any other."

"No!" I wanted to shout.  "The truth does matter!  It is everything."  And then I would, if I could, tell him how much I need stories in my life.  How much we all do.  How stories of Mormon Pioneers remind me of my heritage, and stories of my childhood make me laugh, and how stories of a desperate prostitute doing all she can to save her child inspires me to never give up and how stories of magical wardrobes teach me about the purpose of my life.  I would tell him about how the Book of the Dead teaches me not to fear dying, and the writings of Confucius teach me to be patient with myself and others, and the stories of Peter remind me that even flawed sinners like me can become great. That the Olympics remind me of the essential qualities of human goodness and that Claire de Lune taught me how to feel.  I would tell him that the story of springtime bursting into life again after an awful winter is awe inspiring to me.  And I would tell him, more than anything, that all of these things have brought me closer to God.

I don't fault this parent for being frustrated with the end of Pi, but I do ache for him.  I ache because, from my perspective, the world is full of stories.  From how we interpret the events around us to less spontaneous, more artistic and refined variations - they matter.  And they change us, and they make us better.  And they teach us to empathize with perspectives that are not ours.  Is that not a less limiting definition of truth?  Truth is more - so much more - than simple exact reality or total fantasy.


A. B. said...

I recently read the Life of Pi. It changed my life. It really did. What a beautiful post. I love it. And I agree: stories are vital. And you know what? It is never proven in the book which version of the story is true. The more grisly of the two tales seem more plausible but there is no evidence that either of the stories is true. The story begins and ends the same but what happens in the middle is a mystery. Maybe it is a coping mechanism. Maybe it really is the truth. Who is to say? What we as the reader (or in life, as an individual) get to decide is which we believe and which enriches us more and which makes it easier and better to be our best selves.

So after reading that book I have chosen to believe in God, even if it doesn't make sense. Even if it can't be proven that God exists. That is the story I have chosen to live my life by.

And my life is all the better for choosing it.

Joni said...

Oh, dear friend. Your comment was lovely. You said so much more concisely what I was trying to say! You have always been such a stunning example of faith to me. In college I generally felt like if you agreed with me then I was probably on the right track ;). I'll take this as a second witness that I'm not completely out of my mind. Let's visit ASAP.