If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.
These are the words of Virginia Wolfe.
We blurt out what we believe to be true about others, in a way that suggests a compulsive and consuming cultural habit, as if to put the other down is to (falsely) lift ourselves up. We live in a time when extreme entertainment is an integral component of a force-fed diet of entertainment, political theatre, dramatic crisis exposure followed by “heroic” rescue and recovery measures that illustrate “our ability to withstand difficult challenges. And this pattern is so engraved into our ‘conventional’ pattern of conceptualizing ‘how things really are’ that we believe the inexorable and inescapable truth of our own “making”.
The truth, however, continues to suffer the ignominy of having billions (if not trillions) of dollars poured over it, in a vain and persistent attempt by those with the cash to either cover up the big truths of their existence. The big oil companies, in collusion with the big auto companies, we all know, were able to buy up the technological innovation that birthed transportation without the need for fossil fuels early in the twentieth century. A century later, we are just beginning to take the steps necessary to begin a transition off our dependence on fossil fuels to run our cars, buses, transports, trains, airplanes and ships and to heat and cool our homes.
Meanwhile, the evidence of our complicity in this ‘big lie’ has been repeated in other theatres. For example, the tobacco companies spent billions both in advertising the ‘benefits’ of their products as social-greasing to sophisticated interactions and in drumming in the message that there was no evidence that smoking was dangerous for human health. All the while both of these messages were being injected and infused into the culture (even movie contracts contained clauses that specific tobacco products were to be used in specific Hollywood films) the scientific evidence was mounting in the laboratories and in the morgues that demonstrated the truth of the direct and indirect linkage between cancer-causing smoke and several fatal health conditions including cancer, heart attack, stroke, COPD (formerly emphysema).
Centuries ago, the ‘flat-earth society’ held sway over the incipient evidence pointing to the planet’s circular character. Familiarity with flat surfaces as safe places to walk, plow, ride and by extension to ‘integrate’ into one’s imagination as the ‘reality’ of the world in which people live are at the core of every resistance to new evidence (not to mention the risk of having to give up one’s livelihood (or the corporation’s profits, or the town or village’s tax base).
Anyone over fifty reading this grew up in a world in which teen pregnancy was so abhorrent that the young women were sent out of their home towns to a ‘special place’ where they could and would receive care and deliver their babies, if they chose to carry to term. On the other side of this coin, there were the ‘back-street’ abortion clinics in which unsanitary conditions prevailed in their provision of the fetal abortion. Both alternatives were embarrassing, and could be emotionally devastating for the families and the young women, for the purpose of demonstrating the ‘evil’ of their ways, in conceiving in the first place. Bringing the truth that the definition of evil was a church-originated, human-manufactured evil and that other ways could (and would) be found to reduce the trauma and the danger of abortions that did not meet even minimal standards of hygiene would take centuries. Even today after most countries have agreed that therapeutic abortions ‘trump’ the previous dangers, and made their provision a part of public policy, there are still millions who work everyday to banish those provisions through the courts.
The belief that ‘life is sacred’ shines like a halo over the heads of these ‘right-to-life’ proponents, in the case of an unwanted, dangerous or criminal pregnancy while, their commitment in support of military killing knows no bounds. And the hypocrisy and the irony of their position is missing to their eyes. Similarly, most of the ‘right-to-life’ proponents believe in reducing the ‘size of government’ until it comes to ruling on a woman’s right to choose which decision is appropriate for her, in a pregnancy, given all the pertinent conditions of that event in consult with her doctor.
And then there is the “hallowed” military budget in countries like the United States where the military is another religious organization, providing employment for millions, social status and income, along with educational opportunities and post-service employment in a trade acquired while in service. It is an unadulterated “job-generator” thereby reducing the pain of high unemployment figures on political leaders seeking re-election, an economic engine through the provision of bases, scientific research and development, manufacturing and sales for millions. And in times of military conflict (has there been a break in this theme for the last many decades?), all of these factors are enhanced in size and in economic “benefits”. Amassing more military capacity (in arms, personnel, technology and intelligence) that the sum total of all other countries in the world is not a sign of strength, but rather a sign of deep and profound insecurity, neurosis and perhaps even national psychosis. And then to argue that 7000 nuclear warheads is not enough, and that the number needs to be raised, at the moment when rogue states like Pakistan (already a member of the nuclear club) and North Korea and Iran, both impelling headlong toward nuclear weapons capability, as a matter of national “defence” is not merely preposterous; it is an outright defamation of the human need to survive, and ought to be grouped as ‘war crimes’ before an buttons are pushed.
It is not that there have not been whistle-blowers willing to risk public embarrassment, harassment and even legal action including dismissal from their legitimate employment, especially if they exposed the truth about those very employers.
And before any reader starts to squirm, let’s be clear that a culture in which the truth is hidden, covered, repressed and “protected” by those willing to shield its escape into the light of day, as this culture is and has been for centuries, will also foster, encourage, enhance, and support the repression of many other truths, including the truths that inhabit our homes, our schools, our churches, our hospitals, our courts and definitely our prisons. This business about public lies and dissembling that trump has so taken advantage of and exploded for his own purposes certainly did not start, nor will it finish with him. It is his lying about himself to himself (and to the world) that is so noxious, and potentially infectious.
I once received a letter from a family member detailing some serious tragedies in our family, focused on two generations back. The details were clear, tragic, sad and unsettling. However, when I asked another family member, who was present when those traumas took place, about their truth, he instantly, peremptorily denied there was anything to the story. Both the original source and the second source were about the same age; neither had lost any “faculties” like memory loss, or the ability to communicate. Neither had escaped the emotional and psychological damage these traumas had caused, and yet one was ‘open’ to the truth of the family while the other was not, for whatever reason. And we will never know the full extent of their truth, as both are now deceased.
On the other hand, I also listened to stories about the family’s history, from another source, berating one parent for extreme sensitivity in re-marrying ‘too soon’ following his spouse’s death. And yet, decades later, that same ‘despicable’ person had been elevated to near-sainthood, so transformed was the picture painted by an older offspring. What is/was the truth? Who knows? Opinions, perceptions, denials, distortions selective amnesia, selective memory and outright ‘coping’ skills will frequently, if not predictably, result in the truth’s defamation.
And once again, in a culture, family, society in which the truth about the family is distorted, it is only to be expected that the truth about one’s self is a difficult hurdle to mount, and to overcome. Our capacity to “present” the face that we believe the world wants to see, including especially our accomplishments (those reliable and predictable generators of compliments, acceptance, and reinforced social value) is so deeply ingrained into our “socialization” process as to be a virtual identity signature for the rest of the world. Our minor mis-steps, on the other hand, are frequently nested in comic narrative, in order to merely withstand the feelings of shame, embarrassment or even guilt that lingers long after the original mis-step. As for our major screw-ups, many of those are so buried in our unconscious that it will take years, sometimes decades, for them to bubble up into the light of day, often when we least expect such ‘eruptions’. (Jung notes this dynamic as our Shadow, that sack of repressed and painful memories, experiences and disasters that lie buried until recovery later in life.)
And while the original painful experience may take decades to unpack, it is to these moments in time that we have to pay special attention. Violations by parents, teachers, family members or those known to the family are often the most painful and the most buried events of our lives. And, although buried, they are nevertheless still pulsating somewhere deep in our psyche, rearing the head of their wound at moments of surprise, shock and even more dismay. Some of us are fortunate to have found ‘safe places’ in which to unpack some of these hidden dramas, with our spouses, perhaps with a therapist, a psychiatrist, or in times past, perhaps a clergy, or a lawyer, or a family doctor.
What constitutes a ‘safe place’? The issue of confidentiality is the first criterion for most of us to consider we are in a ‘safe place’ in that we are confident that our ‘truth’ will remain safe with the other person, that no one will become privy to our story, mostly because we are unwilling and often unable to bear the thought of select people knowing what we know about ourselves. The second condition is that our confidant will respect our need to take our time, will respect our need to tell our story, in the fullness that we can dredge up, without imposing an immediate or permanent judgement. It is in hearing ourselves tell our story, with all of its messy details perhaps for the first time, that we come a little closer to learning what we have been through, what that must have been like, how ‘successful’ we have been in keeping it buried for all these years, and what steps we might need to take to reconcile with those we have hurt, or with those who have deeply and profoundly hurt us. In a new sense, through such a process, no matter how many similar episodes it takes, we become more aware and potentially accepting of who we really are, and of how repressed we have been and of how we wish to learn from our trauma in order to live a life that builds on the gifts of the disclosure.
Not only are we more likely to accept our own failures, irresponsibilities, betrayals (those we experienced and those we inflicted) and both the acts we wish we had not committed and those we failed to take, but also we are thus more grounded, more human and more in touch with the rest of humanity, each of whom has a similar story (in their impact on the psych, the body and the spirit).
Ironically, since most of us spend the largest portion of our lives in pursuit of extrinsic goals and rewards, in a committed pursuit of whatever we consider our own success, it is in our greatest failures and in the coming to terms with their implications that we not only reveal to ourselves who we are and what kind of things help to define the patterns in our life, but we achieve a very different and far more significant ‘success’ than those that come in cheques, cars, houses, wardrobes, and our place in the organization chart or in the investment pools. The very wounds, bruises, broken dreams, failed relationships and painful vengeances that have been inflicted by us and on us are the ‘gifts’ that make us whole, real, authentic, compassionate, and far less dependent on exaggeration, deception, bravado and secrecy as crutches to help us walk those paths that are still beckoning.
And it is in the coming face to face with our deepest fears, anxieties, dreams, and wounds that we begin the process of telling ourselves the truth about ourselves. And, clearly unless and until we come to that place where we are strong enough to be vulnerable and open to such a deep dive into places previously hidden under the many rocks of our denial and our avoidance, our compulsivity and our escapism, then we actually fail ourselves and all others who love and matter to us, by our conscious or unconscious withholding of ourselves from ourselves and from those who profess to love us.
This deep dive is not one that is or can be engineered by chemicals, by voodoo, or by some extreme physical, emotional and psychological project, although some would argue for such a process. The dark night of the soul of which the mystics have spoken and written for centuries, requires and demands a level of faith and confidence that only “gold” will come from the encounter. And such a faith is, almost without exception, rewarded as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How does such a profound dive into the darkest corners of one’s biography enable the telling of truth about the other?
First, knowing how incomplete and how wounded and how vulnerable and imperfect we each are, in all aspects of our lives (ethically, morally, intellectually, socially, spiritually and aesthetically) we are much more likely to appreciate fully the depths of another’s authentic person. Our consciousness of our “mask” brings a deep awareness of the “mask” of the other. Our consciousness of our stupidity, insensitivity, our capacity to demean and to patronize, our openness to our failure to take into account many of the forces that have impacted our lives….all of these help to transform our perception of ourselves and have the potential of enriching our perception and conscious awareness of the fullness of the other.
Conversely, our failure or avoidance of such deep dives, restricts us to lives of mere gnats, darting over the surface of the pond under whose surface swim the creatures of our woundedness. And as a consequence our perceptions of the depth of the others in our world will be impaired by our own willful or unconscious impairment of our own ability to both perceive and to conceive.
It is not a process of judging, or competing, or winning and losing with the others in which we are engaged. It is rather a process of our own growth and development into sentient, vulnerable, authentic and yes very wounded individuals whose uniqueness and whose creative genius is available to the world only from this single, unique, rare and still-unfolding flower that is me.
And the garden in which I will flourish seems quite far out of reach, when surveying the horizon of the public discourse. And the full flourishing of each of our truths about ourselves, with those in whom we have confidence, will provide the needed water and sunlight to nurture the flower of truth in each of us.