Tuesday, May 14, 2019

"My truth"

I ran into an old girlfriend at the Elmdale Tavern* a few years ago. I asked her how she was. She responded by talking for five minutes about why her marriage failed. It was an inappropriate response. She may have realized this or she may have not. What was plain that she felt compelled to tell me.

I get it. I feel the same compulsion. It's especially intense when we meet someone we used to be in a relationship with. There is a sense that if we can get the facts out there it will preclude the judgment we dread.

The expression "my truth" seems to come with a heavy dose of self-righteousness. It's either the self-righteous declaration of the person who uses it or it is a self-righteous condemnation of the expression by some person who feels called to defend something they call "the truth" or, even worse, "the objective truth". I don't believe it's worth getting heated up about the matter either way. As a communication strategy, however, "my truth" is useless.

The first thing to notice is that the truth can and will take care of itself. If it's really true that Noah is has treated Alyson abysmally, then it really is true . If it isn't true, then it isn't. Her declaring it to be true doesn't change a thing. Her convincing someone else that it's true also doesn't change anything. The truth is the thing that doesn't change.

As I note above, there is a sense we all have that if we can get our story out there we will prevail. It's a natural enough response as anyone who deals with children can tell you. Often times all that is needed to make a crying child feel better is to let her tell her story. She's hurt and she wants someone to listen. That same tactic works on adults too. "Works" here means that it will pacify them. But does it work for the adult?

Whether or not we use the expression "my truth" to describe what we are doing, telling your truth is a pushy thing to do. What's our justification for this? "I'm hurting and someone should be listening to me!" Ah yes, entitled victimhood, that will win them over. They don't want to hear this. They'd rather be talking about themselves but here we come and force them to listen to us talk about ourselves. That's a bad way to start.

And it only gets worse.

And think of what that does for our image in their eyes. Do we really want other people thinking of us as victims? If we're in a classroom and there is a teacher, or at home and their is a mother, then being the victim has a certain advantage. The teacher might, repeat might, step in and make things better. That's where we learn this strategy. Of course, most kids also figure out that adults can be fooled.

A few kids (and adults) might notice something else: pity isn't love. Pity is one side of a coin whose other face is contempt. Pity is more charitable than contempt but, and this is crucial, it says something about the person who feels it and not the person who it is felt for. No matter how much I pity you, my pity entails a judgment that there is something wrong with you. I expect nothing from those I pity not out of the goodness of my heart but out of hard-nosed realism. There is no point in expecting anything from such a person because they aren't capable of anything.

We can miss this because good people will listen sympathetically. They'll even respond provided it doesn't cost them too much to do so. But there is always that judgment. It doesn't have to be explicitly made. Often the person making the judgment isn't even aware they are doing it. They, like everyone else, think about themselves. They're thinking they are a good person because they are listening and caring. But the judgment is entailed.

And think what that judgment is! Really, look into the Nietzschean abyss. It's not very pretty is it? The complete judgment the sympathetic listener makes is us will be something on the lines of, "I'm a good and caring person because I'm listening to this sad person tell a story that others don't have time for." And little wonder they don't have time for it because it's rather boring. There isn't anything new or interesting about victimhood. It's the same as everyone else's story. Including me, now that I think of it, I faced similar challenges and dealt with them and didn't make a pathetic spectacle out of myself the way she is. Aren't I good!

(You may be thinking you'd rather be pitied than held in contempt. But, again, think of it from their perspective. Which attitude lets them get on with their life? It's pity. Contempt lingers, lives rent free in your brain, pity is gone the second you leave the person you pity.)

And it gets worse.

It gets worse because our truth doesn't ring true. There is a lie built into it. Our truth is deeply meaningful to us but it's not new or meaningful to anyone else. We are demanding attention: you should listen to my truth! Well, why? There are millions of people in the world and they all have a sad story. What makes us so special? The answer to that question is nothing makes us so special.

Watch any five-year-old in action and you'll see what happens next. The story gets amplified. "I felt threatened," becomes "I was threatened." If that doesn't work, then I was just threatened, I was actually attacked. I know, none of us thinks of ourselves as liars. And, hey, we wouldn't actually make up stories about being victims of crimes. Maybe. But we would exaggerate, improve on the truth. It's the sort of lie that feels like the truth: the listener isn't reacting as they should so we say something that will get the right reaction. The desired reaction is something we deserve so it doesn't matter if the "truth" we tell isn't quite true.

Again, think of how this feels for the listener. They're feeling pity, which, we should remind ourselves, is a way of feeling superior. We, on the other hand, are wrapped up in ourselves and in our vain quest to get validation. We're going to slip. Even if we don't consciously lie, we're going to be less attentive to the truth than we should be. And some not-quite-true or slightly improved "fact" that comes out of our mouth will inspire doubt in our listener. If the listener is a friend it will be more than doubt; we will say something they know not to be true. They'll do their best to hide that they've noticed it. That's what the sort of people who pity others do. But they will notice and that will affirm the judgment they're making about us.

Look into the abyss again. Think of someone who has told you their truth, their story of what happened to them and how it hurt them.  Did you think of them as capable of changing their situation? Of course not. That's why they're telling you; they can't do anything about themselves. They're that crying five-year-old. Only they're supposed to be an adult now.

If, as I said at the top, the truth is the thing that doesn't change, then what can change?

* It occurs to me that the name "Elmdale Tavern" conjures up a deceptive image of a rough, working-class tavern. It was that once upon a time but it's now in the very heart of hipster Ottawa.

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