Dare I presume, like a guru on a mountain ledge, to speak about truth? It’s such an enchanting topic, one I can’t resist babbling on about. Still, I’m mindful (if not observant) of Lao Tzu’s words: “He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.”
I was reassured about tackling this topic when a man, dressed in a monk’s brown robes and accompanying a child, showed up at my front door on Halloween night. Kiddingly, I asked him, “Are you the mad Rasputin?” He replied, “No, I’m Truth. And that scares everyone.”
Certainly, gentle John Keats wasn’t trying to scare us when he broached the subject of truth, producing a masterstroke: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — That is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” I’ll try to say in 1,200 words what Keats said in eighteen.
Most of us claim to care about truth, and the pursuit of it ennobles us. Over the centuries we’ve established a nodding acquaintance with many noble truths. The best of these are revelations concerning human nature. They tell us why, for instance, we often doubt, distrust, and dislike ourselves and each other. Great truth reveals the beauty of our being and the truth of our essential value. Paradoxically, great truth often displays an ugly face, a blurred selfie of human nature that shocks our naïve self-image. Even when ugly, a truth that champions reality possesses raw beauty of its own.
We can’t really appreciate or savor truth until we begin to understand the reasons why, unconsciously, we evade truth. Truth often requires that we be bold, fearless, and engaged. For instance, the truth that human activity is causing climate change is scientifically established, yet even those of us who recognize the grave danger are not realistically facing the threat. We’re timid if not paralyzed, afraid of what this truth demands of us.
The earth is pure truth and pure beauty, a cosmic work of art. Yet humanity doesn’t appear to have assimilated this awareness. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Like children, we’re too enveloped in our own little world to care much about the bigger picture. Often we don’t protect our own bodies from bad food, a sedentary lifestyle, and a toxic environment. If we don’t care about our bodies, we won’t care about the planet. Now that’s an ugly truth, though—again—beautiful in its veracity.
Do we feel diminished by truth and beauty, as if these attributes are greater than us and thereby must be avoided? Are we compelled to reduce them to commodities or ideas—a bestseller about the joys of sex or a treatise on the virtues of the marketplace—to which our ego can relate? Has our dark side, our own inner terrorist, taken truth and beauty hostage because they’re too damn good?
Ugly truth discloses our unconscious interest in suffering. It informs us that we’re emotionally attached to a variety of negative emotions such as feeling refused, deprived, controlled, passive, criticized, rejected, and abandoned. This truth is decidedly not self-evident. In fact, we’re determined unconsciously, through psychological defenses, to deny our collaboration in our suffering. Our ego hates any truth that scorches its pretensions.
We have so much invested emotionally in being special and exceptional. We want to believe we’re masters of the planet and owners of its resources. In greater likelihood, we’re intended to preside as caretakers of the garden.
What’s the source of vanity? It appears that conscious and unconscious fear have tilted us toward grandiosity. Fear arises in us when we feel or imagine our helplessness. Biology imposes various degrees of helplessness and fear upon all babies and children. Adults can, at least consciously, overcome some of the lingering sense of helplessness and its associated inner fear by feeling and claiming, in delusion, mastery over their environment.
A threat such as Ebola produces much fear, in part because it undermines this sense of mastery. Terrorism acquires its psychological punch in the illusion or threat of rendering us helpless. The handgun fetish in the United States covers up or denies an emotional entanglement in unresolved fearfulness. Inaction on climate change tells us we’re so paralyzed by fearfulness that we can’t safeguard our own species.
Helplessness and annihilation, when triggered as unresolved fears in our psyche, can produce their own foretelling. We tend to make real or act out the psychological issues that generate the most inner fear. A fearful person, for instance, tends to bring about situations or events that exacerbate the fear. This person, afraid to feel overwhelmed by the challenges of tackling climate change, is fated to be overwhelmed and defeated by the consequences of inaction.
What other ugly truth requires our attention? Several hundred years ago we believed the Earth was the center of the universe. We’ve since made progress scientifically, but not emotionally. We still want to believe we’re at the center. Instead of the planet, we’ve placed ourselves at the center of existence.
We live in awe of ourselves, examiners of our big brain, worshippers of our ego, and proud begetters of the mechanical and electronic gadgets that we, wizards of technology, fashioned from dust. Humans used to live in awe of the stars, the Heavens, the gods, and Nature. Now we live through subtle or overt grandiosity, projecting our self-importance onto celebrities, sports stars, technology developers, movie stars, the rich, and other secular demi-gods.
We extol them because, in the blush of our projections, we identify with them. Through this identification we’re trying to prove we want to feel “full of ourselves” rather than recognize the true state of affairs, namely our emotional entanglement in feeling fearful, helpless, and insignificant.
This mentality is draped in the robes of superiority and exceptionalism. Many of us can’t accept that we, the precious ones, could ever be just another species susceptible to extinction. Our technology will save us! Meanwhile, we make our world less hospitable to other species. Biodiversity loss is proceeding at a rate 1,000 to 10,000 times that of the natural extinction rate. We’re hanging on, hoping we’re 1,000 to 10,000 times more important than polar bears, whooping cranes, and European otters.
An infantile mentality causes us to believe, at an emotional level more so than a mental level, that my perceptions, my thoughts, my beliefs, and my desires constitute the only reality worthy of my notice. “What I need and want is paramount,” the feeling goes. In this sense, we’re instinctive animals rather than reflective humans. At our most unevolved, we see the world mainly in terms of its dangers, its offerings, and its pleasures. All experience is processed in terms of self-protection and self-advancement.
Some followers of mainstream religion tend to process their belief through self-validation and self-importance: “My existence is known and recognized by God.” A more evolved perspective would celebrate the simple beauty of God’s existence. For those outside mainstream religion, truth can be experienced through an appreciation of the sanctity of the planet, the beauty of the universe, and the wonder of existence.
The ugly truth of our dark side has its own beauty. Ugly truth is the agent of catharsis and evolvement, and such knowledge may be, for practical purposes, our highest truth.