I’ve been thinking about truth lately and what it means. The dictionary defines truth as the following:
- the true or actual state of a matter: He tried to find out the truth.
- conformity with fact or reality; verity: the truth of a statement.
- a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like: mathematical truths.
- the state or character of being true.
- actuality or actual existence.
- an obvious or accepted fact; truism; platitude.
- honesty; integrity; truthfulness.
These definitions are all well and good, but in many ways they are unsatisfactory. There are certain undeniable truths. Things which are proven through science, or at least proven through science to date. And, as has been argued numerous times on countless topics, just because you don’t believe something is true doesn’t mean it’s not. Rather than these defined or hard truths, my thoughts lately have centered more around our own personal truths, whether that be as individuals, families, communities or states. Where does truth lie? How do we find it and is it even something we can ever truly locate?
I’ve been particularly interested in the “true story.” Recently I finished reading The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami. The last paragraph of the book contains these thought provoking lines,
Maybe there is no true story, only imagined stories, vague reflections of what we saw and what we heard, what we felt and what we thought. Maybe if our experiences, in all of their glorious, magnificent colors, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of the truth.
Powerful words and ones which I have thought myself (though not as eloquently) over the years. These thoughts have often come up for me around personal stories. One instance is my sexual abuse as a child. I know this story to be true, but I also know that over the years that truth has often grown and encompassed many contradictory thoughts. The hate, fear, doubt, frustration, betrayal and self-loathing have all existed alongside the love I felt and continue to feel for this man who betrayed me on such a deep level at such a formative part of my life. Taken separately, each of these emotions and experiences tell very different stories, all are true, yet none are the whole truth. Even the core statement that this male relative sexually abused me as child only tells a fraction of the story of me, of him, of my family, of his family. So many of these true stories, I don’t even know. There are also many individuals within my extended family who know my story, yet do not see it as a truth because this truth does not fit their own truth.
These multiple true stories don’t have to always be around tragic or painful events (although I do find that these painful events often have many more contradictory true stories than mundane or happy events). How many times have you shared a memory about an event with a friend or family member who was also there and your stories don’t quite match up? Does that mean that one of your is lying? Does it mean one of you has a faulty memory? Possibly on both counts, but more than likely it is that both stories are true. How often do we acknowledge this? More likely, we argue that one story is true while the other is not rather than accepting that both are true. Rather than “muddying the water” so to speak, both true stories actually help bring us closer to what is the truth.
This is particularly poignant for me as a student of history. There is truth in the statement that the winners get to tell the story. What if instead of just looking at the dominant stories in history, we stopped to look at all the stories? Wouldn’t we get a much clearer view of what was actually going on rather than just one, often biased, viewpoint? As Brené Brown states in her June 18, 2015 blog post “Own our history. Change the story.”
Owning our stories is standing in our truth. It’s transformative in our personal and professional lives AND it’s also critical in our community lives. But we don’t think about history as our collective story. Until we find a way to own our collective stories around racism in this country, our history and the stories of pain will own us.
Although Dr. Brown’s statement is directed at racism in the United States, I would argue it can be applied to any page of history. Without acknowledging and recognizing our own truth and the truths of other players in an event, we will never be able to tap into the whole truth of any story. We need all those stories to complete the picture.