by Ariale M. Huff
Truth is one of the most powerful words and concepts humans have. It is something we continually tell one another that we want to receive and to deliver. More proverbs, philosophic homilies, religious quotes, myths, and folktales address truth than any one other concept, and yet the misunderstandings around this concept are equally ubiquitous.
Misunderstanding #1: The truth is the same for all people. In my "True Stories" personal experience writing class, I share with students a story that points up the subjective nature of truth. When my mother and her two sisters were small, one of them was given a doll for Christmas and one of them broke that doll. In each sister's memory, it was she who was given the doll and another sister who broke it.
They all sincerely believe their version of the story. In a case like this, there is, of course, an actual truth: one sister did actually receive the doll, one sister did actually break the doll. I use the story as an extreme example of how we all see each situation, each interaction, each result.
Many times in this class I am asked how someone writing about childhood abuse can deal with the abuser's denial of the "truth." I point out that many times people are unwilling to admit to mistreatment of others for fear this validates their badness, but I also like to draw students' attention to the fact that each person knows his/her own motivation and personal experience best.
For example, a parent who was raised being beaten or even molested often considers this an expression of love or the way things must be done, rather than as abuse. This attitude does not change the wrongness of the behavior, but it does show how the concept of truth is individual. Again, this is an extreme example.
A less extreme example: I give a class of up to forty people the same assignment, to describe the room we are in or to narrate the events of our last hour together. Each student has a different perspective. No two papers are identical. Each student would claim his/her paper to be the "truth" of the situation. In twenty years of teaching, I have never had two identical responses to any of over a hundred writing assignments all those versions of the truth!
Misunderstanding #2: Truth is absolute, none of it created in our minds or emotions. When my sister and I were little, our family took a rather long trip in a small boat. The trip was terrifying for my sister and for my mother, but it was exhilarating and adventurous for my father and me. If five other people had been along, there would be five other feeling truths about this trip.
In one of my writing classes, I show my students a line drawn between nonfiction and fiction. I believe that all communication exists somewhere on the spectrum between the two. I do not believe there is any such thing as pure nonfiction (fact) or pure fiction (invention).
Even those who record scientific experiments, who are attempting not to interfere with factual documentation, are found to have slightly slanted the findings by choices of words, accidents of observation, human error. Equally so, there is no pure fiction, or something totally new, created by any person without a basis in something he/she already knows or has experienced.
Misunderstanding #3: It is always best to tell the truth. Since truth is subjective, it expresses that which we believe or serves our purpose. Truth can be used to hurt. Truth can be used to disempower. Truth so often comes down to advice, something everyone wants to give and no one wants to get. Certainly, all those religions, philosophies, and authors of fables, myths, and folktales did not intend to give us a weapon with which to hurt each other.
Misunderstanding #4: Telling the truth of your own feelings improves relationships. On the contrary, it is often a quick way to lose a relationship. Maybe that is what is meant by "The truth will set you free"! The courage to share your own truth and claim it as your own does not promise a good outcome.
In my own life, I have found that my own truth often offends or inconveniences others. Many times I have withheld my truth to save relationships. Many times I have shared my truth and taken the consequences. A few times, I have shared my truth and received acceptance for it.
The important issue, I think, is to realize that others are not bound by any rule to like being told your truth. Naturally, we would like to have relationships that can stand the light of certain important truths, but do not expect everyone in your life to bow to this concept or to share your concept of what the truth is.
Misunderstanding #5: People admire those who tell the truth. In theory, we like to believe that we do. In reality, "whistle-blowers" and "tattle-tales" are two of the pejorative names attached to "squealing." The active dislike of even very popular people like Roseanne and Latoya Jackson who have disclosed familial abuse shows our real reaction to those who reveal information we do not want to hear.
All in all, my dealings with this matter as a writer and teacher of writing show me that truth is subjective and not at all the black and white issue we often wish it was. Even when there is a physical fact hidden somewhere in the data, the interpretation of it can differ as widely as attitudes about art and politics. An example I give to writing students is how most editors, teachers, English handbooks, and bosses have slightly different methods of placing commas; however, most of these "authorities" acts as though God spoke directly to him/her/them to give one-on-one instruction in this important punctuation topic.
I think that handling truth is like handling nitroglycerin: something to be done gently and with caution. I also think, as I once said with exasperation to my husband during a hurtfully revealing argument, "truth is highly overrated."
Ariale M. Huff teaches writing classes through Shoreline, Edmonds, Everett, and Bellevue Community Colleges; at the Shoreline and Edmonds Parks Departments; through the Seattle and Sno-Isle library systems; in the Everett C.C. and North Seattle C.C. seniors program; and at local writers' conferences.