Reflection 294: Personal Truth

July 18, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

“The landscape is what you see from where you are.” Black Mountain poet Charles Olson said that. He was referring to the landscape of the mind. The world is what you see from where you’re at—i.e., where you are situated. I said words to that effect in my last post, also referring to the landscape of the mind.

Shifting from what we see to what we say, the landscape we speak of depends on where we are situated in our minds. Anything can be—and sooner-or-later will be—said, if we are in a place where we can say such a thing. But what about truth? Is it situational, too? If our words depend on where we are in the landscape of our minds, how can we tell if what we say is worth listening to, or even comes close to being true?

Politicians, for instance, are always in that place inside their heads where they are seeking to please voters and donors so they can get elected, or reelected. If it can be said, they will say it to get somebody’s money or vote. Political speech has to be set in the context of where the speaker is situated in his or her mind. So much for truth.

Poring over the deals made on Wall Street that brought on the Great Collapse of 2008, I conclude that bankers were so bent on making obscene profits that investments they offered to the public were toxic, and they knew it, but offered them just the same because they were insured against failure. And were backed by rating agencies, insurance companies, business schools, regulators, congressmen, and every other member of the ruling elite. So much for truth.

Penn State University was so bent on pleasing alums by winning every game that they created a situation in which a coach could molest little kids without censure. So much for truth.

Fox News, News of the Day, Disney, docudramas, theater, novels, businesses, corporations, public relations, advertising, celebrities, sports, blogs (including this one)—where, oh, where is truth as opposed to fantasy, entertainment, or opinion?

As always, truth is right next to beauty, in the mind of the beholder. That’s where you’ll find it, or more likely its surrogate, opinion. So don’t think too hard or too long. What’s true is that we can’t tell the difference between the two. It is true if you think so. Otherwise, not.

That’s the upshot of my findings after thirty years of study about how my mind works. Speech, perception, understanding—all situated in my unique mind, are necessarily subject to doubt because I’m trapped in my head and can’t get out. Truth is the name of a free-floating concept passed down by our culture, a word we are born to with a meaning we seek to discover ever after. Along with the meaning of justice, honor, freedom, objectivity, wisdom, and god. These are ideas in the mind never to be met face-to-face. What is truth? Where can we find it? Would we recognize it if we ran into it?

What I’m getting at is probably the most shocking thought I’ve ever had. All consciousness is subjective because situated in the fallible awareness of a mortal human being. We do the best we can, and can always try again until we run out of steam—those are our limits. If we don’t have to be right the first time, and successively closer approximations are allowed, we can make a stab, and always try to do better later on. But we shouldn’t obsess or wait too long. What’s true is we are suspended by a filament over a fiery pit, and that thread could part at any time. The one sure thing is that we will die, but we don’t know when. Beyond that, it’s all up for grabs—truth, justice, and the rest.

Given the world we live in, and the nature of our minds, this must be common knowledge. The evidence is everywhere around us: Assad killing his own people and claiming he’s not; the late Muammar Gaddafi, ditto; The U.S. invasion of Iraq on false pretenses; the way Wall Street does its business; the business of politics; the business of the news media; and on and on. If you’re literate and awake, you are familiar with the story.

Our engagements better be snappy or we won’t ever get to them. So we settle for less than perfection, which is our lot because it is the nature of our minds to look out from so small a sample of experience that we are almost totally deaf, dumb, and blind. We are well-advised to do the best we can with what we’ve got in the time allowed. It is highly improbable that we will ever do better than that. Humility is our lot, along with wonder, curiosity, fallibility, and far more than our share of pride in small undertakings.

Much of what passes for truth among us merely shows how finely we’ve been calibrated by our culture, so is not truly our doing. Each of us becomes a bearer of that culture, which we pass on to our children, as they will to theirs. Which is as true of our way of thinking as it is of our manner of dress, food preparation, speaking, getting around, playing, fighting, and so on. What we contribute is largely our urge to get and stay engaged with others as we learned to do in childhood, to be attentive, occupied, and busy one way or another. That’s what it takes to be human. We are the go-go species, always on the move, always up to something, always making beauty or trouble because both are situated in our heads.

As the thinker of these thoughts, I trust my creative imagination to forge a link between the sensory impressions that give me a world and the subsequent actions I will take in adjusting to that world. Truth and opinion are both imaginative products of the situation I think I am in as derived from memories of my past experience. In essence, I make the connection from sensory suggestions of a world to my felt placement in that world, and on to appropriate action by trusting my imagination to come up with a precedent that will apply to this particular occasion.

There you have it: my ongoing loop of engagement with a world I cannot know for sure, relying on imagination as I go—with thoughts more revealing of my situation than the truth. Living ever in the moment, I stumble on, making myself happen through invention sparked by seemingly familiar sensory patterns. The main thing is to keep going from one engagement to the next. From one project or relationship to another. Until I can’t go on, so I’m done. Stymied. Finished. Until then, I do my best to stay situated and engaged, and to be blessed with enough judgment to tell truth from opinion.

I’m glad to be with you today. Y’r friend, –Steve


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